Half the weighting in evaluating education goes to pre-K through 12th grade. Overall, the generation progressing through school now is the most educated ever. In the 2016 Census, the source of this data, almost 90 percent of Americans had earned a high school diploma or GED. Wide differences exist in the education levels in the states, however. Rates of less than a ninth-grade education range from 11 percent in California to 3 percent in Utah. Iowa leads the nation in the percentage of students graduating from high school, slightly more than 90 percent, which is one of the key metrics involved in the Best States education ranking. The early start that children gain from pre-K education also is a factor. With nearly a quarter of children enrolled in preschool nationally, the Best States ranking shows New Jersey with the greatest, at almost one-third.
The ACT, a college-readiness test that colleges consider in admitting students, measures student achievement in English, math, reading and science. More than 2 million graduates of the nation's high school classes of 2017 took the test.
Slightly fewer students – around 1.7 million – took the SAT in 2017. The SAT assesses students in math and evidence-based reading and writing. Connecticut ranked No. 1 for college readiness, with 62 percent of high school graduates passing the SAT or the ACT, followed by fellow New England states Massachusetts and New Hampshire. New Mexico ranked last with only 22 percent of students meeting the assessments' benchmarks.
High School Graduation Rate
In order to have a full picture of any state's success in graduating students from public high school, a longitudinal look at a graduating class, starting with students who enter the ninth grade and counting how many graduate from the 12th grade, is necessary. According to the U.S. Department of Education's report for the 2014-2015 school year, Iowa – the No. 1 ranked state overall – led the nation in high school graduation, with 90.8 percent of the state's high-schoolers obtaining diplomas. New Jersey ranked second, with 89.7 percent graduating. Alabama ranked third, with 89.3 percent. In general, students in the Far West, Southeast and Rocky Mountains had the lowest rates while students in New England and the Plains had the highest rates.
NAEP Math Scores
Sampled students in the eighth grade across the country are tested for math and reading proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which the U.S. Department of Education bills as "The Nation's Report Card." The scores on the math test range from 0 to 500. Looking at the states whose eighth-graders scored highest on math in 2015, Massachusetts, the No. 1-ranked state in education and No. 8 among Best States overall, had the highest average score: 297. New Hampshire ranked second, with 294. NAEP scores show differences for boys and girls. While the difference between them on math is now zero on a national average, some states still have differences. In Vermont, girls lagged by 3 points, while in Massachusetts, the No. 1 state in NAEP math scores, male students lagged 4 points behind female students.
NAEP Reading Scores
"The Nation's Report Card" also measures reading proficiency among eighth-graders, with scores ranging from 0 to 500. Looking at the states whose eighth-graders scored highest in reading in 2015, New Hampshire, No. 3 in education overall, ranked highest, with average reading scores of 275. The Granite State was followed closely by its southern neighbor, Massachusetts, which is No. 1 overall in education, with average reading scores of 275. In reading, female students scored an average of 9 points higher than males throughout the U.S. In Maryland, girls outscored boys by 16 points, and in Alaska, North Carolina and Missouri, where girls scored an average of 14 points higher than the boys.
The standards for measuring the quality of any state's pre-K programs are extensive. They include measures of the numbers of teachers with bachelor's degrees of specialized training in pre-K education, class sizes of 20 students or smaller and teacher-student ratios of 1 to 10 or better, supplemental services such as health and vision care and meals provided. The states were graded on a range of 1 to 10 on all these measures by the National Institute for Early Education Research. Notably, Washington is the only state that ranks in the top 10 for education and for this metric. Five states – North Carolina, Rhode Island, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama – tied for best pre-K quality.
Early childhood education provides a firm grounding for children entering kindergarten. This metric accounts for the percentage of children under 5 in any state enrolled in a nursery school or preschool program in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Vermont led the nation in preschool enrollment, with 33 percent of kids under 5 signed up. New Jersey and Connecticut followed closely, with 32 and 31 percent enrolled, respectively. Nationwide, 1 in 4 young children is enrolled.