The states with the best and worst schools

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A new report has determined that the United States’ education system is improving.

The bad news is that it still gets a C+.

Recently, education news and research publication Education Week released its 17th annual survey of the status of education in all 50 states. The report, titled "Quality Counts," grades each state based on six key metrics: K-12 achievement; standards, assessment and accountability; the teaching profession; school finance; students’ chances for long-term success; and transitions and alignment. Maryland ranked first for the fifth straight year, with a grade of B+, while South Dakota ranked last, with a D+. Based on Education Week’s 2012 survey, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed the states with the best and worst education systems. Yahoo! Homes is publishing the best and worst five here; to see the rest of the top (and bottom) 10, visit 24/7 Wall St.:

When the question of how best to improve the educational system comes up, the discussion sometimes turns to raising test standards or increasing the accountability of teachers. But one of the most regularly debated issues is school funding. Many contest that the schools that perform poorly across the board do so because of a lack of funding, while the ones that do well are simply funded better.

A review of the data shows that the issue is much more complicated than that. Of the the states that spent the least per student, most did not do well across the other measures. Just one state among the bottom 10 spenders — Texas — scored among the best 20 in Education Week’s overall rank. Among the 10 states that spent the most, several did well overall, but others did poorly across the six measures.

Based on this data, it appears that states must meet a basic level of spending to be able to provide decent services for their students, but having good funding does not guarantee a good educational program. In an interview with 24/7 Wall Street, Amy Hightower, director of the EPE Research Center, which runs Education Week, confirmed that this is an observation that other experts have made.

A few elements in particular were shared by many of the best state education systems, and missing from the worst. One example is the transitions and alignment section, which measures how schools use programs and resources to help their children move from pre-K to kindergarten, middle school to high school, and high school to college or employment. Seven of the 10 best-scoring states overall were in the top 15 for transitions and alignment in this year’s report. Hightower explained: “Ten years ago, this was not part of the conversation.”

24/7 Wall St. reviewed the 10 best-scoring and 10 worst-scoring states, based on Editorial Projects in Education’s 2012 Quality Counts report. To generate each state’s overall grade, Education Week combined six separate categories, which each measures a different component of the education system. K-12 achievement measures test scores and graduation rates. Standards, assessment, and accountability determines whether schools measure student achievement through standardized testing and rewards and penalizes schools based on performance. The teaching profession category measures whether schools hold teachers accountable to high standards and provide incentives for performance. School finance measures whether the state is spending money on students and identified funding inequality. The students chances for long-term success category measures family background and employment opportunities. Transitions and alignment measures how schools manage student transitions between school systems and secondary education or employment. All data are for the most recent available year.


(Photo credit: Thinkstock)
(Photo credit: Thinkstock)

5. Arkansas
> State score: 81.7
> State grade: B-
> High school graduation rate: 70.6% (16th lowest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $11,275 (25th lowest)

With an A grade, Arkansas scored better than any state except Georgia for transitions and alignments. The state is one of just eight where high schools are required to have a curriculum designed to prepare students for the postsecondary education system. Arkansas also scored second out of all states in the teaching profession category, receiving a score of B+. It is one of just 11 states to have a program that rewards teachers for raising student achievement, and is one of just 10 to provide incentives to principals to work in targeted schools. Despite some impressive scores, Arkansas ranked well below the majority of states in chance for success, K-12 achievement and school finances.

4. Virginia
> State score: 82.9
> State grade: B
> High school graduation rate: 76.0% (19th highest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $9,786 (15th lowest)

Virginia scored in the top third of states for all the six major categories that Education Week looked at, and scored in the top 10 in four of them. Virginia had the eighth-highest score for K-12 achievement. More than 37% of 11th and 12th grade students scored at least a 3 on an advanced placement exam in 2011, higher than any state except Maryland. The state was also rated sixth for the teaching profession category. It is one of just eight states to provide incentives to board-certified teachers to teach in targeted, hard-to-staff schools and one of 11 to have a pay-for-performance program that rewards teachers who raise student achievement.

3. New York
> State score: 83.1
> State grade: B
> High school graduation rate: 78.4% (10th highest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $16,239 (4th highest)

New York was just one of five states with a grade of B+ or better for school finances. The state was just one of four in 2010 to have every single one of its public school districts spend more per pupil than the national average. School districts in the state spent $16,239 per pupil in 2010, the fourth-highest figure in the country and the best among the 10 states on this list. However, Governor Andrew Cuomo has argued that this funding has not necessarily led to higher achievement in the classroom, and the grade of C- for student achievement, ranked in the middle of all states, backs that assertion. This month, the governor proposed closing that gap by requiring students to spend more time in the classroom with either a longer school year, longer days or a combination of both.

2. Massachusetts
> State score: 84.1
> State grade: B
> High school graduation rate: 79.1% (8th highest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $13,507 (13th highest)

Massachusetts received the highest grades of all states for both K-12 achievement and chance for success. It was the only state where more than half of fourth and eighth graders scored proficient in mathematics on assessment tests in 2011 — 58.4% and 51.2% respectively. Massachusetts was also the only state in the country where more than 50% of fourth-graders were deemed proficient in reading, as less than a third of students in the U.S. received that distinction. If history is an indicator of future success, outcomes for these students will be strong. More than 69% of 18- to 24-year-olds are enrolled in higher education or have a degree — the highest of all states. It is also the only state where more than half of those ages 25 to 64 have a postsecondary degree.

1. Maryland
> State score: 87.5
> State grade: B+
> High school graduation rate: 77.9% (13th highest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $12,953 (16th highest)

With an overall grade of B+, Maryland’s schools are considered the best in the country for the fifth year in a row. Maryland was just one of five states in 2010 with 100% of school districts spending more per pupil than the U.S. average. In addition, a whopping 43.8% of 11th and 12th grade students scored a 3 or better on an advanced placement exam, the highest percentage in the country by more than six points and way over the national rate of 21.8%. State officials credited the strong rankings to, among other things, reforms in student standards and teacher evaluations thanks to funding from the federal Race-to-the-Top Initiative and a $50 million federal grant to improve early childhood education.


(Photo credit: Thinkstock)
(Photo credit: Thinkstock)

5. Alaska
> State score: 71.0 (tied-4th highest)
> State grade: C-
> High school graduation rate: 69.3% (12th lowest)
> Per pupil expenditure: : $16,675 (3rd highest)

Alaska is one of four states to receive a D- for its standards in the teaching profession, the lowest grade given out in this category. Alaska is one of just a handful of states that lacks teacher reciprocity with other states, making it difficult to recruit talent into the state from other areas. In November, Governor Sean Parnell told the Alaska State Board of Education and Early Development he wanted it to adopt higher performance standards for teachers. Parnell also told the board he wanted teacher evaluations to be more closely connected to student performance. In 2009 only 37.6% of those ages 18 to 24 were enrolled in postsecondary education or had a degree, the lowest percentage of all states. The good news for Alaska is that it received better marks for its handling of education finances compared to most states. The state received a score of B-, ranking 13th of 50 states. This was better than all states within the bottom 10 overall.

4. Mississippi
> State score: 71.0 (tied-4th highest)
> State grade: C-
> High school graduation rate: 62.2% (4th lowest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $9,756 (14th lowest)

Mississippi was one of three states, along with Louisiana and West Virginia, to receive a failing grade for K-12 achievement. Only about a quarter fourth-graders in the state were deemed proficient in math in 2011, with less than 20% of eighth graders given the same distinction. Less than 4% of students in grades 11 or 12 received a 3 or above on an advanced placement exam during the year. This is the lowest rate of all states and much worse than the 21.9% across the U.S. In addition to having one of the worst set of public schools overall, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools rated Mississippi as having the worst charter school laws in the country.

3. Idaho
> State score: 70.9
> State grade: C-
> High school graduation rate: 72.1% (21st lowest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $8,818 (6th lowest)

With a grade of D-, the state of Idaho received the worst marks for school finance. Idaho spent just over $8,800 per pupil in 2010, one of the lowest of all states. A September report by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities showed the state had, since fiscal 2008, cut per-student spending by both a larger percentage and dollar amount than almost all other states in the nation. Idaho also ranked at the bottom for the teaching profession, with a grade of D-. Among other things, Idaho does not have policies in place to transfer pensions across state lines and does not provide financial incentives for teachers to earn national certification.

2. Nevada
> State score: 69.7
> State grade: C-
> High school graduation rate: 59.2% (the lowest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $8,419 (2nd lowest)

Nevada was tied with New Mexico for having the worst chance for success in K-12 education, receiving a D grade. Only 33.7% of students in 2010 had a parent with a postsecondary education, the lowest ranking of all states. The high school graduation rate in Nevada was 59.2%, the lowest rate in the country. Nevada spent $8,419 per-pupil in 2010, the second lowest of all states. Spending is low across the board – the difference in per-pupil spending was just $2,028 between the fifth percentile and the 95th percentile. This was the second-smallest gap of all states. Once the rankings were released, Nevada School Superintendent James Guthrie told the Reno Gazette-Journal that the Clark County School District based in Las Vegas, the fifth-largest school district in the U.S., brought down the state’s ranking and that other districts in the state are performing significantly better.

1. South Dakota
> State score: 69.3
> State grade: D+
> High school graduation rate: 69.5% (13th lowest)
> Per pupil expenditure: $11,859 (21st highest)

South Dakota is the state with the worst-run school system, according to Education Week. The policies in place in South Dakota would make it very difficult to recruit top teachers. Among other weaknesses, South Dakota doesn’t have pension portability across state lines, doesn’t have a plan to formally differentiate roles among teachers and doesn’t pay teachers to earn national board certification. The state’s governor in 2012 proposed plans to eliminate tenure and pay $15 million annually in bonuses to both high-performing and hard-to-find teachers, although residents voted against the idea in November. South Dakota also scored third from the bottom in transitions and alignments.

To see the rest of the best and worst states in the country, visit 24/7 Wall St.