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Every Student Succeeds Act

Nation’s Schools Get Middling Grade on Quality Counts Report Card

By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — December 30, 2016 5 min read
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As a new political and policy era dawns in Washington, the status of the nation’s schools remains stable, though still earning a grade of C from Quality Counts 2017, the 21st annual report card issued by the Education Week Research Center.

The C corresponds to a score of 74.2, which is nearly identical to the 74.4 the nation posted in 2016, when it also received a C. The steadiness of national results, notwithstanding, a handful of states saw their scores increase or decline by a full point or more.

Quality Counts grades the states and the nation on educational performance across a range of key indicators, issuing overall A-F grades based on a traditional 100-point scale.

The overall grade is based on three custom indices developed by the Research Center:

  • The Chance-for-Success Index uses a cradle-to-career perspective to examine the role of education in promoting positive outcomes throughout an individual’s lifetime.
  • The school finance analysis evaluates spending on education and equity in funding across districts within a state.
  • The K-12 Achievement Index, last updated in 2016, scores states on current academic performance, change over time, and poverty-based gaps.

Massachusetts takes first place among the states for the third year in a row, with a B and a score of 86.5. It’s followed by five states earning grades of B: New Jersey (85.6), Vermont (83.8), New Hampshire (83.4), Maryland (82.8), and Connecticut (82.7).

At the other end of the spectrum, Nevada is at the bottom of the list as it was in 2016, receiving a D and a score of 65.0. Mississippi (65.8) and New Mexico (66.3) also receive grades of D. Grades and scores for those three states remain relatively unchanged from last year’s outcomes.

Overall, the majority of states (34) land grades between C-minus and C-plus.

Montana saw the biggest improvement between 2016 and 2017, with a gain of 1.3 points. New Hampshire and South Carolina also post increases of about one point. The uptick for New Hampshire places its overall score in the top five for the second time since Quality Counts’ revamped grading framework was introduced in 2015. By contrast, Alaska (-1.2) and Kansas (-1.0) are the only states to see their summative scores drop by a point or more. Alaska’s decline can be attributed to a substantial drop in its results on the Chance-for-Success Index, while Kansas experienced a marked fall-off in school finance.

Chance for Success

For the 10th year in a row, the nation earns a C-plus grade on the Chance-for-Success Index. Performance is strongest for indicators related to educational foundations in early childhood where the nation earns a B-minus. By comparison, the U.S. receives a C and a C-plus for the school years and adult outcomes, respectively.

State Grading Data Download

Grading Summary (2017)PDF
Chance for Success (2017)PDF
School Finance (2017)PDF
K-12 Achievement (2016)PDF

The 13 indicators that make up the Chance-for-Success Index capture opportunities for children to get off to a good start, move smoothly through K-12 education, and ultimately achieve positive educational and workforce outcomes as adults.

For a decade now, Massachusetts has stood at the top in this category and continues to lead the nation with a grade of A-minus (91.0). New Hampshire is the only other state to earn an A-minus (90.3) and is followed by three states at B-plus—New Jersey (87.8), Connecticut (87.4), and Vermont (86.8). New Mexico scores lowest, the sole state to receive a D (66.4). In all, 28 states have grades of C-plus or lower. Montana saw the largest increase (1.9 points) while Alaska experienced the most substantial decline (-3.4 points).

The nation’s grade of C for school finance has remained the same for the past seven years, although its numeric score has dropped by half-a-point since last year.

School Spending

The school finance analysis examines two critical aspects of school spending. Of the eight indicators in this category, four assess school spending patterns, while the remaining metrics gauge equity in the distribution of funding across the districts within each state.

The finance indicators in Quality Counts 2017 are based on the most recent data available from the federal government, which are from 2014. Quality Counts does not report raw spending data. All expenditures are adjusted by factors such as regional cost differences, in order to facilitate apples-to-apples comparisons.

Wyoming regains its spot at the top of the rankings after slipping to second place in the 2016 report. It posts an A-minus (89.5) followed by four states with grades of B-plus: New York (88.7), New Jersey (88.1), Connecticut (87.4), and Maryland (86.6). Idaho is the only state to get an F (58.9).

Montana and New Hampshire each improved by two points while Kansas and Virginia each saw their scores tumble by two or more points.

The analysis finds that states generally did better on measures of equity than on overall spending. In fact, nearly half of the states (24) receive an F for spending. The U.S. average for per-pupil spending stands at $12,156 after adjusting for regional cost differences. Vermont spends the most at $19,654 per student, while Utah ranks last at $7,038.

Nationally, the Research Center’s equity analysis continues to find wide disparities in funding patterns across districts in many states. The Wealth Neutrality score indicates that just one state, Alaska, provides higher funding for property-poor districts than for their wealthier peers.

The District of Columbia and Hawaii do not receive finance grades because they are single-district jurisdictions.

K-12 Achievement

The nation earned a C-minus for K-12 Achievement. Its letter grade has held steady over time. Numeric scores have inched up from 69.7 in 2012 and 70.2 in 2014 to 71.0 out of 100 in 2016.

The achievement index, which counts for one-third of this year’s overall grade, gauges states’ performance on 18 indicators. Results for this category were published in Quality Counts 2016, and remain unchanged because they rely heavily on National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which are released every other year. Other elements of this index include high school graduation rates and Advanced Placement exam scores. To score well on this index, a state must demonstrate strong academic performance, combined with improvements over time and progress toward narrowing poverty-based achievement gaps.

Massachusetts (85.2) ranked first for K-12 Achievement, posting the only B. It has been the leader in the rankings for nearly a decade. New Jersey (81.0), the only other state with a grade higher than a C-plus, earned a B-minus. Mississippi (60.0) and New Mexico (61.8) received the nation’s lowest grades at D-minus.

Across the three indices in the Quality Counts report card, the nation receives its lowest mark in K-12 Achievement as scores in this area are dragged down by current academic performance. On the other hand, it fares best in the Chance-for-Success category, buoyed by solid results on indicators related to educational foundations in early childhood.


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