Ranking disparities: What defines high-quality education in a state?

Measures of a state's educational quality can vary widely depending on methodology

Last week saw the release of U.S. News & World Report's 2015 Best High Schools. While individual schools get the spotlight in the national rankings, it's easy to overlook the package's ranking of states based on their overall percentage of top high schools.

Contributing to whether a high school is determined to be among the nation's best are factors including:

  • student/teacher ratio
  • math and English proficiency levels
  • an overall "College Readiness Index" based on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate test scores

When it comes to states with the highest percentages of top high schools under that methodology, the top five are:

  • Maryland
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Massachusetts
  • District of Columbia

At the bottom:

  • Minnesota
  • North Dakota
  • Mississippi
  • Alabama
  • South Dakota

Also released this year was Education Week's annual Quality Counts report, which included a "State of the States" report card grading each state based on "Chance-for-Success Index," achievement, and school finance. That ranking was topped by:

  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Maryland
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire

Rounding out the bottom: 

  • Arizona
  • Oklahoma
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada
  • Mississippi

While the states that overlap across the top five in both reports are notable, those that appear among top states on one and in the bottom or middle on the other are perhaps more so, as they beg questions of which methodology is more accurate and what factors create a high-quality education system.

California, for instance, is No. 2 on the U.S. News ranking, but No. 42 on the Ed Week report card. In an email to Education Dive, Tina Jung, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education, wrote that while the department appreciates outside organizations' work to gauge education quality nationwide, doing so is difficult due to the variety of challenges faced by each state.

"While the US News and Ed Week rankings are interesting, the work of maintaining California’s quality and leadership is done internally," Jung wrote. "State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson has created several task forces to improve teaching and learning in the state."




Ed Kim, curriculum director at tutoring firm C2 Education, says that a number of "intangible metrics" like the skill levels of individual teachers and the "real intelligence" of the average student in a classroom play a much larger role in determining a state's educational quality, but can't be measured.

"While standardized tests, subject-specific class exams, and other assessments attempt to place both fundamental and technical value on students, such assessments are weighted and biased against various socioeconomic groups," Kim said.

For Dr. Julia Nyberg, a faculty member in the Kaplan University School of Education's Master of Arts program, the most important comparative analysis would look at the indicators used to determine the rankings. "If we’re looking at something such as school finance or how funds are allocated, that in itself is tricky because looking at funding allocation, if we have X number of dollars going to a specific school site or school district, it’s not so much how much money, but how the money is being spent."

It's an interesting point, as an analysis of per-pupil funding in the top and bottoms states shows, as expected, that the average per-pupil funding in the top states on either list exceeds the national average, while that of the bottom states is lower. Less expected, however, is that per-pupil funding in six of the 17 states actually fell between 2008 and 2012, the latest year with Census data available. Additionally, many states are still recovering from funding cuts made during the Great Recession.

Furthermore, measuring the connection between funding and educational quality can be difficult.

"You can have a school site that has very, very little funding but is doing extremely well in terms of performance because of how they’re using that small funding," said Nyberg. "Whereas, on the flip side, you can have a school site with a large majority of free-and-reduced-lunch students — and therefore, they receive a lot of Title I funding — and they’re not using those funds in a way that transfers or that has a correlation to student performance."

Of the six states where funding fell between 2008 and 2012, California is the only ranked in the top five on either list, though Gov. Jerry Brown has been working to restore funding in his latest budget proposal — and states like Alabama are making strides of their own. Meanwhile, bottom-ranking states like Minnesota, Mississippi, South Dakota, and North Dakota (which saw per-pupil funding rise 20.71% between 2008 and 2012) saw at least meager increases.

"The great recession forced schools to drastically cut their budgets, yet student achievement continued to rise in California during that time," Jung wrote. "It is difficult to gauge whether there is a direct relationship between funding and high-quality education."


Many states have seen in recent years a push to spend more on tech solutions in the classroom, with some observers in the K-12 space questioning whether investments are also being made in adequate professional development to fully reap the benefits of those tools.

In California, Los Angeles' billion-dollar iPad program, meant to put a tablet in the hands of every student in the district, is an oft-cited example. The program was riddled with issues before ultimately folding and becoming the subject of an FBI investigation. On the device front, there are certainly more cost-effective alternatives.

Kim suggests funding could best be spent on teachers and curriculum. "As difficult as it is, the teacher must be of the highest quality in knowledge, empathy, and guidance," he said. "The teacher must assess each student's strengths and weaknesses, and then apply the correct curriculum, methodology, and time to maximize each student's progress towards college and beyond." 

On the teacher quality front, it's worth noting that many of the bottom five states on both lists are largely rural and located in the South or Midwest, so dedicating funding to higher teacher pay may be even more critical when it comes to attracting high-quality educators.

Noting that education is the one "product" in the U.S. that is fluid and unique to each consumer (i.e. student), Kim added that curriculum should also be vast, versatile, and thoughtfully constructed. 

Nyberg, meanwhile, sees a re-examination of the processes used to evaluate teachers and professional development as critical to ensuring the highest quality education. "Teacher evaluation has to be a more holistic approach that looks at multiple measures of teacher and student performance," she said, adding that professional development should mimic the pedagogical styles teachers are being encouraged to embrace.

"Why are we having professional development occur where teachers are sitting and receiving information for a school day, perhaps, and they’re sitting the whole time passively receiving information? Or where do we have folks enter the classroom where they’re actually doing a demonstration lesson, where teachers are actually seeing theory transfer into practice?"

Jung wrote that while the issue is multifaceted, California's funding is focused across STEM education, career and technical education, teacher professional development, preschool programs, before- and after-school programs, and increasing opportunities for vulnerable student populations like special education, English learners, and foster children. Like many states, though, how funding is used is left largely up to local education agencies.

In the end, while rankings may take a considerable amount of valuable data into consideration, what they don't measure — and perhaps can't — suggests they should be taken with at least half a grain of salt.

"I think that those rating lists make for really great pulp headlines ... and that's an easy grab for a reader,'' said Nyberg. 

Would you like to see more education news like this in your inbox on a daily basis? Subscribe to our Education Dive email newsletter! You may also want to read Education Dive's conversation with USA Today's Greg Toppo about his new book"The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter."

Follow on Twitter

Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation