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Report Card 2007: Major Findings

The conclusion of this report card is unambiguous; the states need to do a far better job of monitoring and delivering quality schooling.

For starters, state education systems suffer from a severe information gap. The lack of reliable and available data on state performance is alarming and created serious challenges in evaluating results on a state-by-state basis. The data must be compiled and monitored if we are to succeed in improving student performance nationwide. No responsible publicly or privately held firm could operate successfully with such a lack of data.

As for educational quality, the states' current performance is unacceptable. While a number of states are engaged in promising efforts to build more innovative and accountable K-12 systems, there would have been far more Cs, Ds, and Fs had we not graded on a curve. The academic performance of every state needs to improve. This is true for all demographic groups, but especially for poor and minority students, who have too often been ill-served by today's schools.

Although there are state success stories that others can and should emulate, our major findings include much that should concern policymakers, business leaders, and our fellow citizens.

  • Return on investment varies greatly across states. States like Utah and North Carolina appear to spend their education dollars far more efficiently than many of their peers, posting twice the rate of return on their education investments. Other states show disappointing academic results given their spending levels, even after accounting for student poverty, cost of living, and the number of pupils with special needs.
  • Certain states with a large percentage of low-income and minority students score far better than others on achievement tests. Those seeking to improve their own students' academic results should look to high-achieving states with large percentages of traditionally low-scoring demographic groups, such as Florida, Kansas, Texas, and Virginia, to figure out how to succeed with low-income and minority students. Although some states like Wyoming may seem relatively homogenous they do in fact, have significant populations of low-income students and some minority students. Because they are serving those students relatively well, they earned As in this category.
  • States could do much more to ensure a 21st century teaching workforce. Almost all the states have basic skills tests and subject knowledge exams in place for new teachers. However, there are no clear data on what states are doing to evaluate teacher performance, reward good teachers, make it easier for talented candidates to compete for jobs, or remove ineffective educators.
  • Truth in advertising is inconsistent. Many states systematically paint a much rosier picture of how their schools are doing than is actually the case. This makes it tough for parents, voters, or business leaders to hold public officials and educators accountable. Alabama, for instance, reported in 2005 that 83% of its 4th graders were proficient in reading on its state test—seemingly making it one of the nation's highest-performing states. But according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 22% of Alabama's 4th graders scored at or above the proficient level on reading, making it one of the nation's poorest performing states.
  • State standards are too often inadequate. Many states have done a mediocre job of establishing rigorous standards in key subject areas. Without clearer, rigorous guidelines about what students need to know, states will have a hard time measuring achievement and holding students and schools accountable for performance.
  • Forward-looking states are fostering innovation. While progress is uneven, states such as Arizona and Colorado have moved aggressively to promote comprehensive charter school legislation and enable virtual schooling, thus helping establish the infrastructure for 21st century educational reinvention.
  • High school graduation rates and college preparation levels are much higher in some states than others. Some states are successfully preparing students for college and the workforce, while others are falling short. Those that are not making the grade should look to states such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Illinois, which lead the nation in ensuring that students graduate from high school in four years, pass challenging Advanced Placement (AP) exams in core subject areas, and go on to enroll in college.
  • States have begun to improve data collection efforts. Despite widespread problems with securing adequate data, there are signs of improvement; forty-five states now use a unique statewide student identifier to track students over time and across campuses.

We approached this project knowing full well that research cannot always provide consistent, nuanced guidance when it comes to effective policies and management practices. The indicators we used reflect our considered judgment about what elements a high-quality 21st century educational system should include and what sort of results it ought to be expected to produce. In a world in which American students must compete globally—and in which 90% of the fastest-growing jobs will require some postsecondary education—our schools must do more than they historically have done to ensure that all students are prepared to succeed. In this new world, the goal must be that each and every student completes high school equipped for college or for a skilled, rewarding position in the workforce.