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The States with the Best Schools

As of 2011, total spending for all public elementary and secondary education in the United States surpassed $630 billion per year, more than $12,300 per student. The vast majority of that funding, roughly 88%, came from state and local governments.  State governments have an especially important role: they maintain standards for curriculum, make sure that school districts with faltering local tax bases are adequately funded and assess the efficacy of public schools by administering statewide achievement tests.

This is the 2015 version of SmartAsset’s study. Read the 2016 version here.

So which states are doing the best job of maintaining strong public school systems? To answer that question, SmartAsset looked at ten across-the-board metrics of education, placing a special emphasis on how well states are preparing students for college. For each state, we considered the percentages of students taking the SAT, ACT and AP tests, and the average scores for those tests. We also looked at the state-level funding-per-student, the student-teacher ratio, the high school dropout rate and the percentage of high school graduates attending college after graduation (read more about our methodology below).

Thinking about college? Try our free student loan calculator.

Key Findings

Good schools in the northeast. Led by Connecticut, each of the top four states in our study is located in the northeast, and seven of the top ten are on the east coast. Most notable among these states was the high rate of college-attendance. In New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut, over 70% of high school graduates attend college within 12 months of graduating.

The west can do better. The west is home to all four of the lowest-grading states in our study, and six of the eight states that received an overall F are west of the continental divide. Washington, Arizona, Oregon and Nevada all have below average college-attendance rates, below average per-student spending levels and higher-than-average student-teacher ratios.

The Top Ten States for K-12 Education

Connecticut

In today’s job market, the difference between a high school diploma and a college degree is vast (even when taking into consideration the high cost of college). For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2013 the national unemployment rate for workers with a high school diploma was 7.5%, nearly double the 4% unemployment rate of workers with a bachelor’s degree, and still well above the 5.4% unemployment rate of workers with an associate’s degree. Additionally, it is far harder for workers without a college degree to land jobs with good benefits like health insurance or a 401(k).

That is why Connecticut’s efforts to not just educate its k-12 students, but to also give them the opportunity to enroll in college is so important. Connecticut had the 3rd highest college-enrollment rate of any state in the country, with 76% of high school graduates enrolling in college within 12 months of graduation. Add to that the ninth lowest high school dropout rate of any state in the country, and it’s easy to see why Connecticut receives an “A” for its k-12 public education system.

New Jersey

The Garden State has long been recognized for its high quality schools. Business Insider’s 2014 ranking of the top public high schools in the country features three New Jersey schools, including the school ranked number one overall, High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. Our research found that New Jersey couples the second lowest dropout rate in the country with the eighth highest college attendance rate. It also rated in the top ten for its level of per-student funding, and its student-teacher ratio.

Massachusetts

Since the passage of a major statewide school reform bill in 1993, Massachusetts schools have improved markedly, and today they are among the best in the country. The state’s Advanced Placement Exam Fee Subsidy Program has helped pushed the rate of students taking AP tests into the top ten of all states, even while average scores on those tests remain high—4th highest in the country. Bay State students also had the highest average ACT Score of any state in the country, though just 23% of them took that test in 2014 (as compared with the 84% that took the SAT).

New York

The state of New York invests $20,376 annually for every student in its public education system, second only to Vermont. That investment is paying off. It has the sixth-highest college attendance rate of any state in the country, with 71% of high school graduates attending college within 12 months of graduation.

Virginia

Virginia’s most famous native son, Thomas Jefferson, was a strong proponent of public education. In 1779, while governor, he wrote “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” which described a free public education system that was nearly unheard of at the time. While such a public education system would not come to Virginia until after the civil war, the groundwork was laid. Today, Virginia boasts the fifth lowest dropout rate of any public school system in the nation, and the third highest rate of students taking an AP exam. It is also one of the nation’s top states for higher education.

Delaware

Education is important in Delaware. SmartAsset’s recent state-by-state study of higher education systems ranked Delaware first overall for its public colleges and universities. Its k-12 public education system is nearly as meritorious. Indeed, the New York Times recently called Delaware a “Case Study in Lifting College Attendance.” Juniors in Delaware public high schools are required to take the SAT, and seniors deemed eligible for college receive repeated prompts from counselors and state officials to apply to and attend college. Delaware is currently ranked 12th for its college attendance rate; expect that number to rise in coming years.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire’s dropout rate of 1.3% is the lowest of any state in the country. It has achieved that admirable mark by keeping its schools well-staffed and well-funded: the Granite State has the fifth best student-teacher ratio of any state in the country, and the 11th highest level of funding per student.

Minnesota

The highest-ranked state outside of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic region, Minnesota boasts among the lowest dropout rates and highest college-attendance rates in the country. Some 71% of Minnesotan high school graduates attend a college or university within 12 months of graduating, the seventh highest rate in the nation.

North Dakota

North Dakota is one of several states that mandate ACT testing for juniors. By requiring participation in a college admissions test, the state removes one of several hurdles many students face in the college admissions process. That one hurdle may seem trivial, but for a student who is uncertain about attending college, it can make all the difference.

Nebraska

Nebraska’s student-teacher ratio of just 9.8 to 1 is second highest in the nation. That means students in Nebraska’s public schools can spend more valuable one-on-one time with teachers, which in turn can produce better academic outcomes.

By the Numbers: K-12 Public Education in the United States

Data & Methodology

To assess the quality of state k-12 public education, we looked at data from the College Board, the ACT, the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Education Association. Specifically, we looked at the following ten metrics:

  1. High school dropout rate (double weight).
  2. Percent of high school graduates who attend college within 12 months of graduation (triple weight).
  3. Funding per student (full weight).
  4. Student-teacher ratio (double weight).
  5. Percent of high school juniors taking either the ACT or the SAT (double weight).1
  6. Percent of high school juniors taking a second admissions test (half weight).
  7. Average SAT scores (quarter weight).2
  8. Average ACT scores (quarter weight).
  9. Number of students taking at least one Advanced Placement exam as a percentage of high school seniors (full weight)
  10. Average A.P. test score (quarter weight).

For each of those ten metrics, we ranked all fifty states and applied a score from 0-100 based on that ranking. A school ranked first would receive a 100, while a state ranked last would receive a zero. After applying the weights listed above, we calculated an average score for each state. Grades were assigned on a curve, based on the percentile of each school’s raw score.

Read the 2016 version of SmartAsset’s study of the states with the best schools here.

Photo credit: flickr


1. Since most colleges and universities only require applicants to take one admissions test, we rewarded states more heavily for having a very high percentage of students taking just one test than having a moderate percentage of students taking both. So, for example, in Wyoming, 100% of students take the ACT and 3% take the SAT; we weighted Wyoming’s ACT percentage double, and the SAT percentage half. Overall, a state with a 100%-4% split, like Wyoming, would receive a higher score for testing percentages than a state with an 80%-20% split.

2. Scores for the SAT, ACT and AP tests have a strong inverse correlation with the percentage of students taking that test. The fewer students that take the test, the higher the score, likely because students who are interested in attending top-flight schools likely make up a larger portion of the testing population. For that reason, we weighted the scores on these tests lightly.

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Nick Wallace Nick Wallace studied economics at the University of Washington, and currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Comments

Martin H 2 years ago
This is one stupid ranking. Reading the chart above, the only metrics are number of kids doing/not doing things and money spent. Nowhere do they show the ACT or SAT average scores. Or AP scores. Nope. If they did, the lie would be obvious: spending are SAT/ACT scores are weakly correlated. Some of the top rated high schools (BASIS) in the country are in - ready? ARIZONA - which is given an F. Could some of the states do better? Sure. But at what cost. In Arizona we don't have the huge tax base that the eastern states have. A far better method of ranking would be on nationally normed test scores, but of course then people would see that just because you spend a lot doesn't mean you get more in return.
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Rick 2 years ago
Where do these numbers come from? College attendance, drop out rate, student teacher ratio... ? They are 2011 (4 years old) numbers? How do you explain Virginia vs South Carolina? All of the comparative numbers are about equal, yet South Carolina gets a C+ (15th) and Virginia gets an A- (5th)? Apparently the numbers are not related to the grade? My wife teaches in SC and her student teacher ratios (throughout the elementary school) are at least 1 teacher per 20 students.
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