Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

State of Education: Who Makes the Grade?

by Kavan Peterson

Schools spend fewer dollars per student in Utah than in any other state, but more fourth-graders there improved reading and math scores over the past decade than in more than half of the states.

Maine, for example, spends nearly twice as much on a comparable student population — $9,300 a student vs. $4,800 in Utah. But fewer Maine fourth-graders improved their math scores — and their reading scores actually declined in the past decade.

Both states ranked just above the national average on 2005 national reading and math tests, known as the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP. But Utah stands out for its success in boosting the number of students to pass the tests since 1992, the first year of state-by-state NAEP testing, despite ranking dead last for spending.

Because of lackluster academic gains for the nation as a whole, education analysts increasingly are focusing attention on standout states where test scores show more students passing than a decade ago. The most recent NAEP scores released in October showed that despite strong gains in fourth-grade mathematics since 1992, students aren’t reading much better than a decade ago. Nearly two-thirds of fourth- and eighth-graders nationwide still score below grade level — called “proficient” by NAEP — in both math and reading.

In Utah, only 19 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or better on math in 1992, but nearly twice as many — 38 percent — passed in 2005.

Utah students’ academic success is due in part to the state’s lower-than-average population of minority and non-English-speaking students, who historically score lower. But state education officials also credit their efforts to raise state academic standards, such as by aligning classroom curricula with standardized tests and holding schools accountable for student performance.

“Our state has really been paying attention to national experts who over the past 10 years have said that focusing on aligning standards and strengthening accountability is every bit as important as new money,” said Utah Superintendent of Education Patti Harrington.

It’s difficult to prove what actually makes one state outperform another. Key factors such as per-pupil spending and student demographics vary widely, even among top-performing states.

North Carolina, for instance, which ranks 40th in the nation in per-pupil spending, had the largest percentage point increase in the nation in fourth- and eighth-graders to pass the math tests between 1992 and 2005.

Delaware, which ranks eighth-highest in the nation on spending, increased the percentage of students who can read at grade level more than any other state and was the only state to make better-than-average gains in both fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. While nationally the number of fourth-graders who can read at grade level increased by fewer than 3 percentage points since 1992, Delaware increased its percentage of passing fourth-graders by 10 percentage points. National reading scores for eighth-graders dropped slightly since 1992, but the number of Delaware eighth-graders who were rated proficient in reading increased nearly 7 percentage points.

A report by the magazine Education Week released this month found that states that made the largest gains on the NAEP — including Delaware, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Texas — were also the most fervent and longest supporters of standards-based education reforms. Since the early 1990s, the standards-based reform movement has emphasized raising statewide academic content standards, testing students in core subject areas such as math and reading and holding schools accountable for raising student test scores.

The report, “Quality Counts 2006,” found that factors such as per-pupil spending and student demographics had less of an impact on student achievement than a state’s history of raising expectations and standards.

“After more than a decade, it’s fair to be asking whether the standards-based approach to education reform works. We’re seeing pretty strong evidence that it does,” said Education Week Research Director Christopher Swanson.

Education finance expert James W. Guthrie, director of the Center for Education Policy at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education, said that the amount of money states spend on education “clearly matters.” But measuring the impact of dollars on student achievement is difficult because most states do not account for how education money is spent at the individual school level.

“Until we are able to get spending data down to the school and even classroom level, the huge differences in inefficiency from school to school and state to state create such a fog that it’s difficult to measure their consequences on achievement,” Guthrie said.

To get a better idea of how states compare based on their overall improvement on NAEP, has compiled a list of the top 10 best and worst performers based on the percentage point change in fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading tests between 1992 and 2005, plus the change in eighth-grade reading between 1998 and 2005. These lists look at how much states’ test scores have improved and differ from rankings of states by highest and lowest score, in which students in Northeastern states such as Massachusetts consistently outscore the rest of the nation.

(Up to 14 states that did not participate in one or more of the NAEP exams until 2005 were not included in this analysis. Download the complete NAEP scores for all 50 states and detailed information on state per-pupil spending and levels of student poverty in Excel spreadsheet format.)

Fourth-grade Math Top 10:

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  • Leading the nation in fourth-grade math improvement was North Carolina, where the portion of students passing more than tripled from 13 percent scoring proficient in 1992 to 40 percent passing in 2005. Following North Carolina, the states with the biggest gains in percentage of students passing the math tests were: Ohio, Massachusetts, Texas, Idaho, Arkansas, Wyoming, Florida, South Carolina and Indiana.Fourth-grade Math Bottom 10:

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  • Even the worst-performing states in fourth-grade math nearly doubled the percentage of students who passed since 1992. Still, the District of Columbia and New Mexico came in last, behind Alabama, Iowa, Maine, Hawaii, Missouri, West Virginia, Mississippi, Kentucky and Georgia.Fourth-grade Reading Top 10:

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  • Improvements in reading scores, although modest nationwide, were significant at the fourth-grade level in several states. Colorado and Delaware went from only one-quarter of students reading at grade level in 1992 to 37 percent and 34 percent respectively in 2005. The next states to make the most percentage point gains were: Florida, Maryland, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Ohio, Arkansas, New York and Minnesota.Fourth-grade Reading Bottom 10:

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  • The worst-performing states in fourth-grade reading posted negative gains between 1992 and 2005. The number of students who passed in Oklahoma dropped by 4 points, in Iowa by 3 points, in New Mexico by 2 points and in Maine by 1 percentage point. The number of passing scores in reading in Wisconsin, Indiana, West Virginia, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Georgia rose by less than 1 percentage point.Eighth-grade Reading Top 10:

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  • Delaware, the only state in the nation to post better-than-average gains in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math, showed the largest increase in the nation in the percentage of eighth-graders to pass the reading test between 1992 and 2005. Massachusetts and Wyoming were the only other states to show significant improvement in passing rates by eighth-graders — 7 points and 5 points respectively — followed by 3 percentage point gains in Missouri, South Carolina, Louisiana, Washington, Florida, Arkansas and Virginia.Eighth-grade Reading Bottom 10:

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  • Eighth-graders performed worse in 2005 than in 1992 in 20 states. Connecticut posted the most significant losses, dropping from 40 percent of students testing at grade-level in 1992 to 34 percent passing in 2005, behind: West Virginia, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Maine, North Carolina, Rhode Island and Oregon.Eighth-grade Math Top 10:

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  • North Carolina, which posted the largest percentage point gains in fourth-grade math, also led the nation in improving eighth-grade math. The percentage of students passing nearly tripled from just 12 percent scoring at grade level in 1992 to 32 percent in 2005. The next states showing the most percentage gains were: Massachusetts, South Carolina, Ohio, Delaware, Virginia, Texas, New Jersey, Arkansas and Minnesota.Eighth-grade Math Bottom 10:

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  • Iowa and Washington, D.C., made the smallest gains in eighth-grade math — less than 2 percentage points — between 1992 and 2005. They were behind New Mexico, Oklahoma, Maine, Hawaii, Alabama, North Dakota, California, Missouri and Mississippi.Customized NAEP data also can be downloaded from the Internet using the National Center for Education Statistics’ recently launched NAEP Data Explorer. State-by-state profiles are available in “Quality Counts 2006“, which grades states on the strength of their education standards, spending, teacher quality and school climate.

    NAEP exams are separate from state standardized tests that are mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education law, which requires all states to bring student performance up to grade level by 2014. Because NCLB allows states to adopt different tests and standards, NAEP exams are the only benchmark available to track student progress nationally.

    Also: Download state-by-state test scores and per-pupil spending.

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