Skip to main content

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The Northeast reigns and many Western states flounder in a study by the financial website SmartAsset ranking K-12 schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Connecticut make up the top four (with Virginia coming in fifth), while Washington, Arizona, Oregon and Nevada were on the bottom. In the top four states, 70% or more of high school graduates go on to attend college within 12 months. Minnesota, which ranked eighth on the list, was the only other state not in the Northeast to exceed 70% for that metric. Other states in the top 10 included other Northeastern states — New Hampshire and Delaware — as well as North Dakota and Nebraska.

But there's more money at stake than students' potential earnings after college. Taxpayers — especially those raising families — also have an interest, since there seems to be at least some correlation between financial investment in students and having higher high school graduation and college attendance rates. Each of the top four states in the SmartAsset study invested well above the national average in their students, spending an average $16,000 per student compared with the national average of about $12,800.

The nation spends about $500 billion annually on K-12 education, with all three levels of government — federal, state and municipal — contributing. With the federal government footing about 10% of the bill, the contributions of state and local governments can make a big difference.

"State governments have an especially important role," the report says. "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."

Heavier financial investments made on the state level don't always translate into higher-performing school systems. Alaska invests close to $20,000 per student yearly yet has one of the highest dropout rates in the nation at 7%, and only a 50% college attendance rate, landing it an abysmal rank of 44th on the SmartAsset list.

States were ranked according to several factors, including percentage of students who take the SAT and ACT, per capita funding by student, student-teacher ratios in the classroom, high school graduation rates and the percentage of students who go on to college. SmartAsset relied on data from the College Board, National Center for Education Statistics, Census Bureau and National Education Association.

Connecticut, No. 1 on the list, had the ninth-lowest high school dropout rate of any state and the third-highest college-enrollment rate at 76%. New Jersey, which was No. 2, has the second-lowest dropout rate and eighth-highest college attendance rate, while also rankling in the top 10 for one of the highest financial investments per student — $19,601 annually. Last year, Business Insider even ranked High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J., as the top secondary school in the nation.

Meanwhile, schools in Massachusetts have improved significantly since the passage of a major statewide school reform bill in 1993. The state’s Advanced Placement Exam Fee Subsidy Program has helped catapult the rate of students taking AP tests into the top 10 of all states, with average scores on those tests ranking the fourth-highest in the U.S. Bay State students have the highest average ACT Score of any state in the country, even though only less than a quarter of them (23%) actually took the exam in 2014. The Commonwealth’s next-door neighbor, New Hampshire, was also competitive, with the lowest dropout rate of any state in the country: a mere 1.3%.

Besides the four lowest-ranking states all being on the West Coast, all had below-average college-attendance rates and per-student spending levels and higher-than-average student-teacher ratios — earning each an F on the SmartAsset report.

“Knowledge is power, and we are hoping to arm people with the data to make better decisions,” says A.J. Smith, managing editor at Smart Asset. “For this study, the data could help determine where you want to live, who you want to vote for, etc.”

Nevertheless, some experts warn that the study is limited in scope and doesn’t necessarily offer an accurate impression of the quality of education a student gets in a given state.

“We really have to be careful with studies like this,” says Kwame Abasi Patterson, media relations director at Stand for Children, an education advocacy organization. “There are several dynamics and nuances at play here that raw numbers like these just don’t and won’t answer. The quality of a school principal, teacher, support structures, interventions, funding spent wisely, socioeconomics, the achievement gap — they all matter.”

Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, wants the focus to be on the students themselves and not just numbers. She points to her organization’s Parent Power Index, which shows how states can boost student achievement based on qualitative studies and public policies that have a proven track record of success.

“SmartAsset rankings give full weight to per-pupil funding and double weight to the number of students taking college-entrance exams, meaning states that prioritize educational inputs such as spending and test offerings have a distinct advantage,” Kerwin says. “Outputs like whether schools can boost student achievement, and students’ reading and math proficiency scores, are more valuable in determining actual return on investment rather than what lawmakers are putting into the system.”

Written byLaura Kiesel forMain Street