Are State Education Rankings All Wrong?
We overrate states like New Jersey and underrate others that do a better job of creating opportunity and reducing inequality.
Does New Jersey have some of the nation’s best schools?
US News and World Report thinks so. In their most recent rankings, they placed New Jersey in the top spot for Pre-K-12.
Education Week agrees. Though their Quality Counts rankings haven’t been issued since 2021, they had New Jersey at no. 2.
There are dozens of these lists out there, each with its own methodology. For the most part, they make a thoughtful attempt to incorporate multiple variables that matter - things like academic achievement, safety, graduation rates, and available resources. The factors that go into “good” schools.
Almost all of them say that New Jersey is at the top of the pile - or near it.
I’m not convinced. I think there’s a strong case to be made that New Jersey’s schools are overrated.
Last month, I wrote about how we learned the wrong lessons from international comparisons to other countries - particularly Finland.
In today’s edition of The Education Daly, we’re going to look at the difficulty of ranking schools domestically.
Are we falling into some of the same traps?
What good schools do
A common way to identify successful schools is to find the ones with the most successful students. Meaning: highest performing students. A high school the highest average SAT scores, then, is the best high school.
Of course, this makes zero sense. There is no reason to believe that the school is solely or primarily responsible for its high scores. If the student body consists of children whose parents were educationally successful themselves, for instance, it’s likely the results will be strong regardless of the school’s instructional program. Or perhaps the school requires high test scores to be admitted in the first place, which is the case with perennial list-toppers Stuyvesant in New York City and Walter Payton in Chicago. Such schools could spend all day teaching the kids to make sculptures out of mashed potatoes and they would still finish first in many rankings.
Good schools aren’t collections of good students, curated like museum objects. They do more than maintain the expected academic trajectory for each student. An average school can do that. A good school is transformative. It helps kids maximize their passion and potential so they exceed the trajectory that’s typical for similar students.
When looking at schools across a district - or a state - saying one system is better than another requires consideration of how it helps students with different needs. Some schools excel with high performing, academically ambitious kids. They offer accelerated programs and tremendous AP courses. Others have excellent special education supports. Or highly effective interventions for students who arrive far behind and in need of basic skills.
For me, the best school systems create opportunity for the students who typically have the least of it. They meet the biggest challenges. They do the hard stuff well.
It’s relatively easy to seem like a successful school if your lift is light. When the kindergarteners arrive already able to read. When struggling math students receive dozens of hours of private tutoring organized and paid for by those students’ parents. When the PTA is able to raise a war chest that seems more appropriate for a small college endowment. In the most privileged enclaves, these scenarios are real.
The case against New Jersey
When the performance of all students in the state is averaged together, New Jersey looks excellent. Hence the high rankings. But let’s scratch beneath the surface.
For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to focus on eighth grade math scores.1 In 2022, on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), New Jersey tied for the fourth highest average score. Outstanding.
It’s a little dodgy, though, when we break out the rankings by race. New Jersey’s White students had the 2nd-best scores of White students in any state. Its Asian students were also 2nd when compared to Asian students nationally.
But its Hispanic students ranked 9th. And Black students in New Jersey were the 17th highest scoring Black students in the US.
In a nutshell, New Jersey ranked tied for fourth overall because it did particularly well with White and Asian students. Do you find that underwhelming? Feels like New Jersey specializes in student groups that already do pretty well.
It gets worse. Among students who do not qualify for the national school lunch program, New Jersey’s eighth grade math performance ranks 4th. But for students who do qualify - which signals they come from lower income homes - New Jersey is a very unimpressive 25th, one spot ahead of Kentucky - a state which spends about half as much per student on education. Ouch.
Children whose parents graduated college do exceptionally well in New Jersey. They rank 3rd. But what about children whose parents did not complete high school? They rank 27th.
The picture is consistent. Kids with more advantages do very well in New Jersey. Outcomes for other kids are mediocre. Is that an elite system? Without question, there are plenty of incredible schools - and districts - in New Jersey. I’m not trying to badmouth them. I know that I’m about to get an inbox full of very long emails from the fine people of Montclair and Princeton.
But if we’re talking about which states systematically provide the best education, it’s important to consider what a state can do for students who face challenges. In that respect, New Jersey is middling. Not awful. Middling.
A striving parent with limited resources looking to move near the “best” schools would probably be better off choosing another state.
States with underrated schools
So, if New Jersey’s reputation is a little inflated, which states deserve more credit?
I had this whole idea to develop a ranking system that placed more emphasis on key student subgroups and pulled in other factors like access to advanced coursework - and by the time I spent five minutes thinking about it, I had bored myself half to death. There are enough rankings out there. You don’t want another set. Pass.
Instead, let’s spend a moment looking at a state that rarely rises to the top of the lists. US News placed it 37th last year. Education Week ranked it 33rd.
Not impressive, I know.
But this state is, in many respects, the opposite of New Jersey. Bizarro New Jersey.2 It is notably successful with some high priority student groups that are often shortchanged by school systems.
I’m talking about Texas.
Some of you just spit out your coffee. You are certain that Texas schools spend all their time making lists of books to ban and siphoning money from instruction to fund absurd football stadiums. Educational opportunity for marginalized students isn’t a priority there.
Or is it?
Here are some data points from the 2022 NAEP 8th grade math test, same as I shared for New Jersey.
Students who qualify for the national school lunch program did quite well in Texas. They ranked 9th nationwide.
How about the children of parents who did not graduate high school themselves? Even better. They were 4th.
Texas placed 6th for Hispanic student performance.
And for Black students, Texas was no. 1, finishing in a tie with Massachusetts.
If good schools are the ones that meet the biggest challenges; that do the hard stuff well; then, there’s an awfully strong case that schools in Texas are better than those in New Jersey - no matter what US News says - at least for eighth grade math.
While you’re at it, you might take a look at Indiana, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. They all shine in certain areas, too.
Why does this matter? Because if we have the wrong impression about which states have the best schools, we’re likely to learn the wrong lessons and spread the wrong strategies. We might not want leaders around the country copycatting New Jersey.
How to improve state education rankings
Here are my takeaways:
School rankings should be more like Olympic diving. How would that work? Compare the degree of difficult to the result. Easy dives get mediocre scores even when they are executed perfectly. Any diver in the competition can do them. One could argue that New Jersey fits this description. To get on the medal stand, elite divers attempt the hardest maneuvers and still hit the water with a medicine dropper splash. To the extent we are going to rank states academically, we ought to compare the typical outcomes for various student groups to the actual results for that state. The ones that do the best job with the highest degree of difficulty should be ranked highest. Maybe that’s Texas.3
Don’t buy into stereotypes about states. Ask five random people which states provide the best education. I’m willing to bet you’ll hear plenty about the Northeast and New England. The Ivy League universities are there! Obviously, it follows that they have the top kindergartens, too. You might get a smattering of references to affluent states that are destinations for in-demand professionals - places like Maryland, Washington, or California. These impressions are incomplete or outright wrong. California may be the home of Silicon Valley and some of the world’s most valuable tech companies, but when it comes to K-12 education, its track record of delivering for low income students is remarkably unremarkable.
There’s no perfect way to rate states. Every method emphasizes some elements to the exclusion of others. We all care about different things. But at the national level, education policy has focused for decades on making opportunity more universally available. Our rankings should better align to that goal. Even if the states at the top are no longer the ones we’ve come to expect.
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Why eighth grade math? Schools tend to influence math scores more than reading scores, which are more closely linked to home factors. I’m focusing on eighth grade rather than fourth grade (which NAEP also tests) because it accounts for more years spent in each state’s schools. This is a judgment call, of course. But nobody wants to read about four different sets of scores (math/reading for fourth and eighth grades). You’re welcome. :)
Some readers may be familiar with the term “bizarro” from DC Comics. Others may recall that it was the premise for one of the most memorable episodes of Seinfeld.