By: Dr. Matthew Ladner and Alexis Flowers
Which state education systems best leverage their resources to help disadvantaged students? In the chart below, we use the fourth-grade reading exam from the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress to compare reading achievement levels for each state’s low-income Hispanic students by each state’s level of current education spending.
Some technical caveats before diving in: one should not think of low-income—based on eligibility for a Free or Reduced-Price Lunch—Hispanic students as entirely comparable across the nation. First-generation Hispanic students face a distinct educational disadvantage that cannot be easily accounted. The below comparison should therefore be viewed as “rough and ready,” rather than definitive. A small number of states (Maine, Vermont, and West Virginia) had Hispanic student populations too small for reliable NAEP sampling, while North Dakota and Kentucky failed to meet NAEP inclusion standards for English Language Learners. North Dakota and Kentucky thus earned the dreaded * by their scores. Children in English Language Learner programs score lower on average, thus failure to reach the minimum inclusion levels artificially inflates the scores in North Dakota and Kentucky, making them unsuitable for comparison with other states.
Despite these caveats, that fabulous display of dots above actually paints an interesting picture. First of all, we would hope to have better performance all around. Our highest performing states, with proficiency rates of around 30 percent, make for a very uncomfortable place to rest upon your laurels, but it is the best we have for now. This should serve as a wake-up call—we need to do much better everywhere.
Visually you can divide up the states into quadrants based on performance and spending. Clearly Florida is the best performing overall, with the highest overall proficiency rating for states meeting NAEP inclusion standards. Florida’s proficiency level for low-income Hispanic students was approximately three times that of the lowest performing state. Florida accomplished this relatively high performance on a budget, making it a model for study by other states.
Maryland, a state known for its high overall student achievement, ranks well among the higher-spending states. Interestingly, none of the high spending states do very well. Washington, D.C. ranks as the highest spending jurisdiction, but gets approximately the same results as Tennessee, while spending more than twice as much. Rarely has so much money done so little for so many, but sadly our Nation’s Capital has company. Alaska, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York also have high-spending but middling results when grading on a curve.
As you can see from above, this chart shows that student achievement for low-income Hispanic students is too low across the board. Data like this should be a catalyst for change, and proficiency rates below 30 percent should inspire us to do more for this—and all—student subgroups. Furthermore, this chart shows what many of us already know to be true, that more money doesn’t always equate with results. As other research has shown, it’s time to focus on policies and practice to make sure that our students are getting the biggest return on investment.
Alexis is a Policy and Research Coordinator for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She joined the Foundation staff full time after working as a legislative intern during the 2011 Florida session. A recent graduate of Florida State University, she studied Risk Management/Insurance and Economics and graduated cum laude in the fall of 2010. She’s a second generation Floridian, and will begin pursuing her Masters in Applied Economics at Georgia Southern University this fall. Contact Alexis at Alexis@excelined.org.
About the author
Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner
Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.