08/11/2020

Everything You Know About State Education Rankings Is Wrong

You probably think you know which states have the best and worst education systems in the country. If you regularly dip into rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report, you likely believe schools in the Northeast and Upper Midwest are thriving while schools in the Deep South lag. It’s an understandable conclusion to draw from those ubiquitous “Best Schools!” lists. It’s also wrong.

The general consensus on education, retold every few news cycles, is that fiscally conservative states are populated by cheapskates. In those necks of the woods, people are too ignorant to vote in favor of helping their illiterate and innumerate children. Intelligent people understand that high taxes and generous pensions for public school teachers are the recipe for an efficient and smoothly functioning education system. If skinflint voters would just lighten up, the story goes, they too could become erudite and sophisticated.

. . . There’s just one problem with this narrative: Traditional rankings are riddled with methodological flaws.

. . . We fixed two serious problems common to traditional rankings. First, we removed factors that do not measure K–12 student performance or teaching effectiveness, such as spending per student (intentions to raise performance are not the same as raising performance), graduation rates (which often indicate nothing about learning, since 38 states do not have graduation proficiency exams), and pre-K enrollment.

Rankings that include these factors distract from true student performance. For example, under traditional rankings, states with inferior test scores sometimes outrank states with better ones simply because they spend more. A June article in the Tampa Bay Times highlighted the role of spending in the state’s position in one lineup: “Critics of Florida’s public education funding system got another piece of ammunition Wednesday, as Education Week rated the state’s school spending an F alongside 25 other states.”

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