Major Findings

Every state improved on its performance from our last report, but results vary widely and gains across the board must be greater to set all students up for success.

To measure progress, or lack thereof, in state-level performance since the first Leaders & Laggards report, we combined the changes in 4th and 8th grade reading and math proficiency rates from 2005 to 2013. The resulting calculation saw gains for every state in the country. However, the bottom performers—South Carolina, Michigan, and South Dakota—saw only 1.5, 1.0, and 0.25 total percentage points in improvement, respectively—a negligible difference. The three highest-gaining states—Hawaii, the District of Columbia, and Maryland—by contrast saw 12.5, 11.75, and 10.25 points in gains, respectively. We are getting better, but every state has a long way to go.

States show wide variation in the return on their educational investments.

Return on investment (ROI) is an essential calculation for any business. Leaders need to know how much bang they are getting for their buck. To determine an educational ROI, we compared state expenditure per student (adjusted for cost of living) with state performance on the NAEP exam. Utah, Colorado, and Idaho demonstrated high ROI for their education dollars, with generally high performance on the NAEP exam with low expenses. West Virginia, Louisiana, and Delaware, in contrast, saw low NAEP performance combined with high costs.

States show wide variation in success rates on AP tests.

Earning a 3, 4, or 5 on an AP test typically secures college credit in a given subject and is a strong indicator that a high school student has mastered that course’s content. College Board provided us AP passage rates state by state to determine which states were both providing access to AP exams as well as helping students actually succeed on them. In Maryland and Connecticut, 29% of students graduate having passed an AP exam. In Virginia, 28% have. Therefore, many students in those states have both the access and the preparation to succeed on high-level coursework. Unfortunately, this is not the norm across the board, and even those states have much room for improvement. On average, only 20.1% of graduates passed an AP exam nationwide. In Louisiana, only 5% of students graduate having passed an AP exam; in Mississippi, only 4%.

American students are a long way from being internationally competitive.

Our measure of international competitiveness took three factors into consideration: (1) NAEP scores compared with international benchmarks (2) passage rates on AP STEM exams and (3) passage rates on AP foreign language exams. Across all three of these indicators, states struggled. California, the highest-performing state on AP foreign language scores, saw only 9% of students graduate having passed an AP foreign language test. North Dakota, the lowest-performing state, saw .04% (or 1 in 2,500 students). STEM was not much better: The highest-performing state, Massachusetts, had only 16% of its graduates pass an AP STEM exam, and the lowest, Mississippi, had only 1.2% (about 1 in 80 students) do so. Combine that with middling comparisons to international benchmarks, and we see a bleak picture for American students and a nation that wants to compete globally.

States have work to do to ensure that every student is college and career ready.

States have made great advances since 2007 in the quality of their standards to ensure that students are college and career ready by the time they graduate high school. In particular, the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards—a movement the U.S. Chamber of Commerce fully supports—in more than 40 states plus the District of Columbia signals one of the most serious attempts, in recent memory, to ensure all students are provided a rigorous, high-quality education to prepare them for success of high school. Indeed, the improvement in standards nationwide has been so great that we decided to drop one of the 2007 metrics, Rigor of Standards, from this Leaders & Laggards. There is much to applaud here.

Yet despite these promising developments, most states still see large numbers of their students failing to meet a meaningful definition of readiness for the next level of their educations. Even the highest-performing states on the 2013 NAEP—Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota—saw only around half of all students deemed “proficient” on our combined 4th and 8th grade reading and math metric. The lowest performers—Louisiana, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia—saw only around a quarter.

While states are at the beginning stages of Common Core implementation, the business community firmly believes that only by staying the course in demanding high standards will our students be prepared for what lies ahead. Turning our backs on high expectations will only do more harm down the line—for students and our country. Without aligned and rigorous assessments—and proficiency cut scores that accurately demonstrate comprehension—the promise of college- and career-ready standards for students will not be realized.

States can identify good teachers; they just can’t get enough of them.

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s ranking of teacher quality reveals a sharp divide in where states succeed and where they struggle. States consistently scored higher in the ability to identify teacher quality, retain good teachers, and exit bad ones—a signal, perhaps, of the effectiveness of the past decade’s policy emphasis on connecting student performance data to teacher evaluations—but scored extremely low on preparing teachers and expanding the pool of good teachers.

Unfunded state pensions threaten public education.

Unfunded pension liabilities pose an enormous threat to states’ ability to fund their public services, including education. Unfortunately, states like Connecticut, Kentucky, and Illinois have contributed less than half of what they should have to keep these funds solvent, and many other states are failing to make necessary catch-up payments. States such as Wisconsin, North Carolina, and South Dakota, on the contrary, have funded at necessary levels as well as kept up with required payments to maintain their promises to retirees and have money for public education.