Special Report

On Policy, Student Achievement, States Pressing to Measure Up

By Amy M. Hightower — January 09, 2012 12 min read
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The 16th edition of Quality Counts continues the report’s tradition of tracking key education indicators and grading the states on their policy efforts and outcomes. Each year, Quality Counts provides new results for a portion of the policy and performance categories that constitute the framework for the report’s State of the States analysis. The 2012 edition presents updated scores and letter grades, for the states and the nation as a whole, in five of six areas perennially tracked by the report.

New analyses for the Chance-for-Success Index, the K-12 Achievement Index, and school finance, respectively, capture key aspects of the broader educational environment, school performance, and the level and equity of school funding. The two other updated categories focus on policies related to the teaching profession and to standards, assessments, and accountability. In all, these five graded categories span more than 100 indicators drawn primarily from original survey data and analysis by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. The sixth category in the State of the States rubric—transitions and alignment policies—was updated in 2011.

Readers of the report will find overall, summative letter grades and scores for the nation and the states. These grades incorporate the most recent information available from all six categories that make up Quality Counts’ full policy and performance framework. Each area carries equal weight in calculating the summative scores.

For the fourth year in a row, Maryland is the top-ranked state, earning the nation’s highest overall grade, a B-plus. Perennial strong finishers Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia follow closely behind, each receiving a B. Florida and Pennsylvania have dropped from the top 10 since 2011, while Vermont joins the top tier of states for the first time. At the other end of the spectrum, South Dakota receives a D-plus, the lowest grade, and 11 other states round out the bottom tier with grades of C-minus. The nation as a whole earned a C, the same grade as last year, with 41 states earning grades between a C-minus and a C-plus.

Chance for Success

The Chance-for-Success Index provides perspective on the role of education in promoting beneficial outcomes at each stage of a person’s life. Consistent with past years, the 13 indicators that constitute the index capture three broad life stages: the early-childhood years, participation and performance in formal K-12 education, and adult educational attainment and workforce outcomes.

State Grading Data Download
Chance for SuccessPDF
K-12 AchievementPDF
Standards, Assessments, and AccountabilityPDF
Teaching ProfessionPDF
School FinancePDF

The grading for this section follows a “best in class” approach, in which each state’s performance on a given criterion is evaluated relative to the nation’s top-ranked state on that same indicator. The leading state is awarded 100 points for the indicator; other states receive points in proportion to their performance as benchmarked against the national leader.

For the fifth year running, Massachusetts earns the only A, followed by New Hampshire and New Jersey, each with an A-minus. These states have remained near the top of the national rankings since Quality Counts introduced the index in 2007. By contrast, Nevada receives a D, and Mississippi and New Mexico finish with grades of D-plus, results similar to those of past years. The nation as a whole earns a C-plus in this category.

States differ somewhat in the opportunities for children to acquire a solid foundation during the early years and for job prospects in adulthood. However, we continue to find that factors associated with participation and performance in formal schooling are the driving force behind state rankings.

K-12 Achievement

The K-12 Achievement Index evaluates how well a state’s students perform compared with those in the top-ranked state on 18 separate criteria. The index takes into account three dimensions of performance: current state performance, improvements over time, and equity as measured by poverty-based achievement gaps. Each achievement outcome captured in this section is measured in terms of both current performance levels and changes over time.

Grading Summary

The nation earns a grade of C on overall policy efforts and outcomes, while drawing high scores on standards, assessments, and accountability.

1. Maryland 87.8

2. Massachusetts 84.2
3. New York 83.9
4. Virginia 82.6

5. Arkansas 81.6
6. New Jersey 80.5
7. Georgia 79.7
8. Vermont 79.6
9. West Virginia 79.5

10. Ohio 79.5
11. Florida 79.4
12. Texas 79.2
13. Pennsylvania 78.7
14. Kentucky 78.6
15. Connecticut 78.6
16. Hawaii 78.5
17. North Carolina 78.3
18. Wisconsin 78.1
19. Michigan 78.0
20. Rhode Island 77.7
21. Tennessee 77.7
22. Indiana 77.5
23. Louisiana 77.2
24. South Carolina 77.2
25. Delaware 76.8
26. Wyoming 76.8
27. Oklahoma 76.5

U.S. Average 76.5
28. Maine 76.4
29. Illinois 76.3
30. New Mexico 76.3
31. Iowa 76.1
32. Alabama 76.1
33. California 76.1
34. New Hampshire 76.0
35. Colorado 75.1
36. North Dakota 74.7
37. Minnesota 74.6
38. Washington 74.5
39. Kansas 74.4

40. Montana 72.3
41. Missouri 72.3
42. Utah 71.9
43. Oregon 71.7
44. Arizona 71.7
45. Mississippi 71.2
46. Alaska 70.8
47. Idaho 70.0
48. Nevada 70.0
49. Dist. of Columbia 69.9
50. Nebraska 69.8

51. South Dakota 68.1

Note: States are ranked based on unrounded scores.

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2012

Massachusetts returns to the top spot for K-12 achievement based on total points, followed closely by Maryland and New Jersey, each of which also earns a B. These states have been among the nation’s top performers for several years running, although their scores have become more tightly clustered over time, falling within just 2 points of one another this year. At the other end of the achievement continuum, three states (Louisiana, Mississippi, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia receive grades of F on the K-12 Achievement Index.

The average grade for the nation is a C-minus, marking an increase of 1 point since last year. Scores improved in 30 states from 2011 to 2012, with five states—Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, North Carolina, and Rhode Island—posting gains of at least 4 points on the index’s 100-point scale.

By contrast, Florida’s score fell by more than 5 points, a larger margin than for other states. Florida’s score decreased across all three achievement dimensions, fueled largely by declining scores in math and reading as well as widening poverty gaps.

Breaking down results for the three individual dimensions of achievement examined by Quality Counts reveals that the states fare relatively better on outcomes related to achievement equity (a grade of C-plus for the nation as a whole) than they do for current performance or improvement (with average grades of D and C-minus respectively). Only two states—Massachusetts and New Jersey—demonstrate consistently high marks across all three elements of the K-12 Achievement Index, earning a grade of B-minus or better on each aspect of achievement. Detailed subcategory scores and grades can be found online in this year’s State Highlights Reports.

Standards, Assessments, Accountability

In one of Quality Counts’ longest-standing categories, the report examines policies related to standards, assessments, and school accountability. This is also the area in which states post the highest scores, with the nation earning a B in this year’s report. Twelve states receive an A, with Indiana scoring the highest and Louisiana, Ohio, and West Virginia very close behind; nine states earn an A-minus. Nebraska ranks last in the nation, with a D-plus.

Scores in this category have improved in 20 states since 2010, the last time the section on standards, assessments, and accountability policy was updated. Notably, Illinois’ score jumped by nearly 18 points, with the state demonstrating a greater degree of grade-level specificity in its content standards and providing rewards to high-achieving and improving schools. Scores also rose dramatically (by nearly 15 points) in Kentucky, which has implemented a new assessment and accountability system since 2010.

Within this section of the report, states post their strongest showing on indicators related to academic-content standards. Nineteen states received a perfect score in this subcategory for establishing course- or grade-specific standards in the four core subject areas at every grade span, and for offering resource guides that elaborate on academic standards in all core subject areas and for at least one particular student population, such as special education students.

Multiple-choice questions remain the mainstay of state assessments; they are used in every grade span by all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In fact, an analysis of trend data from Quality Counts shows that, over time, fewer states are employing other types of items, including short-answer questions, extended-response items, and portfolios. Ten states, since 2010, have scaled back or eliminated the use of short-answer and extended-response items in their assessments. Several of the states cited budgetary reasons as the impetus for these cuts.

By contrast, the number of states that provide educators with benchmark assessments or item banks linked to state standards has grown from 27 in 2010 to 32 in 2012.

Twenty-four states have developed school-rating systems that go beyond accountability measures mandated under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Thirty-seven states provide rewards to high-performing or improving schools, an increase from 31 states two years ago. Accountability measures aimed at schools with poor ratings have changed little over the past four years, with 36 states currently offering assistance to low-performing schools, and 32 states imposing some type of sanction intended to spur improvement.

The Teaching Profession

The teaching-profession framework consists of 44 indicators that capture three key aspects of state policy: accountability for teacher quality; incentives and allocation; and efforts to build and support the capacity of the teaching workforce.

The nation earns a C, with Arkansas and South Carolina each earning a B-plus, the highest grade awarded this year. Five states earn a D-minus. Since 2010, when new results were last reported, scores in this category have declined by nearly 1 point, with a majority of states now posting lower scores than two years ago. This drop is, in part, a reflection of the economy and of states’ lack of ability to continue funding for specific teacher-related policies and programs.

Setting formal requirements for earning a teaching license continues to be the most common state strategy for regulating teacher quality. Most states have established basic-skills and subject-specific testing requirements for those following both traditional and alternative routes into the teaching profession. By contrast, differential standards often apply with respect to licensure requirements calling for substantial formal coursework in the prospective subject areas. Of the 28 states with a requirement in place for traditional-route entrants, only half also apply that standard to alternative-route candidates.

The number of states requiring some form of teacher evaluation has held steady at 45 since 2010. But we find that more states now require annual evaluations for all teachers (20 states in 2012, compared with 15 states in 2010). Similarly, in the past two years, four additional states have started to require that teacher evaluations take student achievement into account.

Of the 44 indicators in the teaching-profession framework, 10 concern state financing of particular policies or programs. In a testament to the difficult budget climate across states, we find a drop in eight of these 10 indicators. Among the hardest-hit areas are those pertaining to supports for beginning teachers. Seven fewer states require new teachers to participate in a state-funded mentoring program—a drop from 23 states in 2010 to 16 in 2012. Just 14 states require new teachers to participate in a state-funded induction program, down from 18 in 2010.

Policies concerning financial incentives are also heavily affected by the economic climate, but particularly those intended to encourage teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools and earn National Board for Professional Teaching Standards certification. For instance, seven fewer states provide financial incentives for teachers to earn national-board certification; the number dropped from 31 in 2010 to 24 in 2012. This drop continues a trend observed over the past four years. Many state respondents noted that recent cuts were a direct result of state budgetary constraints.

By contrast, an original EPE Research Center analysis finds that teachers’ salaries are at least on par with those of workers in comparable occupations in 13 states, four more than in 2010. Our Pay-Parity Index, which benchmarks teacher earnings against wages of counselors, nurses, and physical therapists, and other similar workers in the same state, shows that teachers typically earn 94 cents for every dollar earned by comparable workers. The center’s policy survey also shows that few states are experimenting with alternative forms of compensation, such as pay-for-performance programs.

Although research has consistently found school leadership and working conditions to be among the factors most strongly influencing teacher job satisfaction, effectiveness, and retention, our survey results generally show only moderate adoption of state-policy measures supporting improvements in those areas.

Thirty-nine states have formal professional-development standards, although only 23 states provide funding for such activities, and just 16 require districts to set aside time for educators to engage in professional development. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have standards for administrator licensure, with 19 requiring prospective principals to take part in an induction or mentoring program.

Half the states track school facility information, but just nine use teacher-survey data to regularly monitor and publicly report on school climate and working conditions. This amounts to five more states surveying on working conditions since 2010.

School Finance

The final section of our State of the States update investigates school finance. States are graded on eight indicators that encompass two central dimensions of education finance: school spending patterns and the distribution of resources within a state. When gauging spending patterns, the EPE Research Center evaluates educational expenditures against relevant benchmarks, such as regional differences in costs, the national average for per-pupil expenditures, or the total size of a state’s budget. Like the Chance for Success and K-12 Achievement indexes, school finance grades are calculated using a best-in-class rubric.

For 2012, the nation as a whole earns a C for school finance, holding steady from the 2011 report. The grades in this category tend to be tightly clustered, with half the states scoring in the C-minus to C-plus range. Seven states—Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wyoming—earn the top grade of B-plus for school finance; four states receive a D, the lowest grade.

Quality Counts does not issue finance grades for Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Because they are single-district jurisdictions, it is not possible to calculate scores for equity indicators, which deal with the distribution of funds across multiple school districts.

The EPE Research Center’s equity analysis continues to find wide disparities in funding patterns across districts in many states. For example, the Restricted Range indicator, which reports the difference in per-pupil spending levels for districts at the 95th and 5th expenditure percentiles, finds a gap of $13,730 in Alaska, the largest in the nation. At the other end of the spectrum, $2,175 separates high- and low-spending school systems in Florida. And six states fund property-poor districts at levels equal to or higher than wealthier systems, according to the Wealth Neutrality Score.

Despite significant disparities, states tend to fare relatively better on the equity measures examined in Quality Counts 2012 than on the spending indicators. Few states rank at the top or bottom of the nation for both aspects of finance, and several post especially mixed performances. Utah, for example, ranks first in the nation if the equity indicators are taken together, but earns the lowest score on spending. Conversely, Vermont ranks near the bottom (47th) for the equity of its school funding, but leads the nation in spending.

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.


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