Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Here’s What’s Behind the Nation’s ‘C’ Grade on Student Achievement

By Alex Harwin — September 05, 2018 8 min read
Carmen Cruz, right, an incoming freshman at California State University, Northridge, dances during a campus orientation event. The university has special outreach programs to support students who are the first in their families to attend college.
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When it comes to ranking school quality, one high-profile marker—academic achievement—takes center stage. How much students actually learn, whether they complete their K-12 education, and how states stack up against each other can offer a rough proxy for how well the nation’s public school system is doing its job.

This latest release of Education Week‘s K-12 Achievement Index, updated since January with the most-recent federal data, paints a mixed portrait of middling grades nationally, consistently high achievement among some states, a handful of stragglers mired in poor performance, and continued struggles to close the achievement gap between higher- and lower-income students.

Picking the yardsticks for student achievement can be a subjective task and one that various analysts and policymakers approach differently. The Education Week Research Center uses a basket of 18 indicators in all, with a strong emphasis on data such as test scores and graduation rates that are comparable across states.

So how do the nation and the states stack up on this updated tally of student achievement—and what’s the deeper picture that emerges from the rich stream of data that goes into those scores?

This fresh analysis shows the nation earning a C on the K-12 Achievement Index. That grade signals modest progress over the past decade. In 2008, the first year the current version of the K-12 Achievement Index was published, the nation received a 69.4. The 2018 score is 72.7. To score well on the index, a state typically demonstrates strong academic performance, combined with improvements over time, and progress toward narrowing poverty-based achievement gaps.

K-12 achievement scores lag behind other key metrics in the Quality Counts report, like school funding and the cradle-to-career pathways in the Chance for Success Index.

K-12 achievement scores lag behind the grades on the report card’s other key metrics

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2018.

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Results are uneven across the 50 states and the District of Columbia but generally reflect mediocre achievement. Massachusetts, the top-ranked state for the past 11 years, again leads the nation, with a B-plus (88.0). New Jersey receives the only B (84.7). Virginia gets the only B-minus (79.8).

On the other end of the spectrum, Louisiana (60.9) and New Mexico (61.5) receive the nation’s lowest grades at D-minus. As has long been the case, Northeastern states typically score the highest while Southern and Southwestern states score the lowest.

Rating the States

K-12 achievement is rated using a best-in-class approach. The top state gets 100 points, serving as the benchmark for the remaining states, which receive points in proportion to their distance from the national leader.

The scores rely heavily on math and reading National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which are released every other year. The 2017 data collection marked the first administration of those NAEP subjects on tablet computers. The transition from a paper to a digitally-based test administration caused the U.S. Department of Education to postpone the release of results until earlier this year. That, in turn, delayed the update of the K-12 Achievement scores so the January installment of Quality Counts included results for the index from 2016.

Other elements of this index include Advanced Placement exam scores and high school graduation rates, as measured by the adjusted cohort rates released by the federal Education Department.

This year, Education Week started using adjusted cohort graduation rates, since the federal government stopped producing averaged freshman graduation-rate data previously included in the index. The adjusted cohort rates use student-level data to track the percent of 9th graders earning a diploma within four years, while the averaged freshman graduation rates relied on enrollment data to calculate estimates. The adjusted cohort rates were first available in all 50 states for 2013-14, meaning that grades for improvement trends now cover a shorter time period than in previous report cards.

Results for the index’s three individual dimensions of achievement indicate that states fare relatively better on outcomes related to equity (a grade of B, 84.4, for the nation as a whole) than they do for current performance or improvement over time (with average grades of D-plus, 69.0, and C-minus, 69.7, respectively). Only one state—Massachusetts, which ranked first in K-12 achievement—consistently places in the top 10 across all three elements of the index.

K-12 Achievement Index: See Where the States Land

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2018.

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Inside the Academic Scores

A deeper dive into the updated rankings of current academic performance on the Quality Counts index includes:

• The percent of students scoring at the “proficient” level or higher on NAEP reading and math in grades 4 and 8;

• The high school graduation rate;

• The number of AP scores of 3 or higher (out of a possible 5) for every 100 public high school students.

The top-achieving state in this category is Massachusetts (96.1), which earned an A. New Jersey is next, with a 90.8 and an A-minus. At the other end of the achievement continuum, three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Mexico—score below 50 and receive grades of F.

More students are proficient in math than in reading. Nationwide, about 40 percent of 4th graders are proficient in math, and only 35 percent are proficient in reading.

Massachusetts scores the highest in both 4th grade subjects. Like the rest of the nation, it still skews higher in math than in reading. That pattern also holds true for bottom-ranked states such as New Mexico and Louisiana.

4th Graders Scoring Better in Math vs. Reading

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2018.

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While students are more likely to be proficient in math than reading in every state, Minnesota (13.5), Texas (12.5), and North Dakota (11.7) have the largest performance gaps between math and reading. Reading gaps are narrower in Northeastern states including Connecticut (2.8), Vermont (0.7), and New York (0.5).


Grades in the equity category are based on gaps in test scores between poor and nonpoor students on NAEP. Since 2003, income-based achievement gaps have widened in 3 out of 4 states. Delaware (95.6) and New York (93.4) earn the only solid A grades in the equity category. They are followed by seven states posting A-minuses: Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Montana, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wyoming. The District of Columbia receives the only F (50.0).

Overall State Grades

Catch up on how the nation and states fared on a broad range of K-12 categories, including school finance, as reported in this year’s first installment of Quality Counts, published Jan. 17.

Poor students lag behind their more-affluent peers in every state. The equity component of the K-12 Index examines both poverty-based achievement gaps and progress in closing those gaps. With the exception of Massachusetts, 3 of the other 4 top-ranked states—New Jersey, Virginia, and Maryland—fare well on current levels of achievement and improvements over time but poorly on equity.

New Jersey finishes second on current achievement and second on gains over time. Yet the state ranks 31st on achievement disparities between poor and nonpoor students. By contrast, Florida, which finishes fourth in the nation overall, ranks 20th for current achievement but places in the top five for both annual improvement and equity.

The equity gap has increased in Maine, Ohio, Nevada, and North Dakota. Some states have seen equity gains, as well—most notably, Massachusetts and Tennessee. In fact, back in 2008, the poverty gap was wider in Massachusetts than it was in the District of Columbia, which has the largest current disparities. Now, the opposite is the case.

K-12 Poverty Gap: Performance gap between low-income and more affluent students
Back in 2008, the poverty gap was wider in Massachusetts than it was in D.C., which has the largest current disparities. Now, the opposite is the case.

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2018.

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Performance Over Time

Despite its poor equity rating, the District of Columbia earns the nation’s highest grade for gains over time, an A-minus (91.2). Delaware, Montana, and North Dakota receive the lowest grades, F’s. Thirty-four states earn D-plus or below.

Still, improvements in the K-12 measures have occurred over time. These improvements include NAEP outcomes, high school graduation rates, and AP testing outcomes.

Not only are more students proficient in mathematics than in reading, scores have also improved at a higher rate in math since 2003. Average scale scores in 4th grade math have improved by 5.2 points while reading improved by 4.4. Likewise, 8th grade math scores improved by 5.8 points while reading improved by 4.0.

The largest growth is in Advanced Placement scores. Since 2000, the share of high AP test scores in grades 11-12 more than doubled, to 31.6 per 100 students. States that have made the greatest improvement include Maryland, growing an impressive 42.9 points, followed by neighboring Virginia, which increased by 32.5. Maryland leads the nation with 57.2 passing scores for every 100 students. The lowest-ranking state for this measure is Mississippi, with only 6 passing scores per 100 students.

Improvements in High AP Scores
Since 2000 the rate of high AP scores has more than doubled. Maryland has improved the most whereas, Mississippi gained the least. See how your state compares below.

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2018.

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A Decade of Change

The last decade has seen a lot of change in K-12 rankings, with largely positive results. Overall, more than two-thirds of states posted increases in their index scores. Those with the greatest improvements include Arizona (+9.0), the District of Columbia (+8.8), and West Virginia (+8.5). At the same time, some states saw meaningful declines, including Vermont (-6.2), North Dakota (-5.7), and Maryland (-4.8).

K-12 Index Scores: How Scores have changed over time, by state
States with the greatest improvements include Arizona (+9.0), the District of Columbia (+8.8), and West Virginia (+8.5). However, some states saw meaningful declines including Vermont (-6.2), North Dakota (-5.7), and Maryland (-4.8).

Source: Education Week Research Center, 2018.

Enlarge chart.

In 2008, West Virginia and the District of Columbia were in the bottom three—receiving overall scores of 58.1 and 57.7, respectively. Both jurisdictions ranked just below Louisiana’s score of 60.3. Although West Virginia and the District of Columbia have increased their scores substantially, Louisiana has improved by just a fraction of a point. The state is now ranked last. Only Massachusetts has shown a consistent ability to both score at the top and improve over time.

Data Analyst Michael Osher contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Lies Behind Middling Results on K-12 Measure


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