01.23.11

States with the Smartest Kids

Every other year, 4th and 8th graders are tested in reading and math, and some states produce far more top achievers than others. The Daily Beast ranks which states are acing, and which are failing.

It’s already tough being a kid, from bullies to homework to mom and dad’s rules. Now mix in standardized testing, which has only increased in importance in the decade since No Child Left Behind.

The biggest standardized test is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which measures students based on their exam proficiency in reading and math. With 52 different school systems, NAEP testing is the only comprehensive, if imperfect, gauge for comparing how America’s children are educated.

Gallery: Ranking Every State By Kids' Test Scores

So The Daily Beast decided to use this enormous amount of consistent data to try to figure out which states are collectively doing the best job educating their kids. The methodology for this list was created with guidance from a half dozen of the nation’s leading education research experts, and relied heavily on the research of Bert Stoneberg, NAEP State Coordinator for Idaho.

NAEP testing is controversial. How should we interpret the results? And how much do a child’s, or state’s score, reflect the diligence, intelligence or affluence of the parent, versus the strengths or weaknesses of the school systems? Are the kids that do best, in fact, smarter? What does it mean to be smart, anyway?

For instance, the top five performing states on this list have a median household income (not adjusted for cost of living) of roughly $60,000, and 21 percent of people over age 25 have a bachelor’s degree; the bottom five are at $44,000 and 14 percent, respectively, according to 2009 US Census figures. Children who perform better on NAEP tests also tend to come from states with lower levels of student poverty.

“Think about all the things that are correlated to parental income and education,” says Kevin Welner, education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, “where you live, whether there’s lead paint on the walls, whether the child has good dental care and health care is correlated, other responsibilities the child might have—whether it’s working a job or child care of other siblings—we could go on and on and on for all the things that make a difference.”

Meanwhile, for all the clarity that all this testing data provides, state policies can also affect how it fares relative to its peers. In Florida, for instance, between 14 and 23 percent of the weakest-reading 3rd graders who performed poorly on state exams have been held back since 2002, according to a 2010 study by Columbia University professor Madhabi Chatterji—a far higher rate than for other grades. In other words, Florida steps up its hold-backs as they are on the cusp of taking their first NAEP assessment tests.

Methodology

Stoneberg’s analysis of NAEP results shows that a side-by-side ranking of states would tell us very little about how the states stack up against one another. The NAEP assessment is a sample—a set number of students in each state take the test, and each student takes only a few of the possible NAEP questions—and statewide conclusions are extrapolated from the results. The sampling error for the specific test scores, while small, is still too great to accurately compare states side by side.

So instead, we measured the percent of students who, for the 2009 results, scored at an advanced level or higher for 4th grade math, 8th grade math, 4th grade reading, and 8th grade reading. As a second component, we then took each state one by one, determining the number of states that performed better and worse at a statistically significant level, and averaging those figures. Here are two examples:

Massachusetts

4th grade students at or above the advanced level, Math: 12 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 0
8th grade students at or above the advanced level, Math: 17 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 0
4th grade students at or above the advanced level, Reading: 13 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 0
8th grade students at or above the advanced level, Reading: 5 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 0
Average number of states that performed better than Massachusetts, per test: 0

Mississippi

4th grade students at or above the advanced level, Math: 2 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 47
8th grade students at or above the advanced level, Math: 2 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 48
4th grade students at or above the advanced level, Reading: 4 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 35
8th grade students at or above the advanced level, Reading: 1 percent
Number of states that performed better, at a statistically significant level: 46
Average number of states that performed better than Mississippi, per test: 44

It is worth noting that the NAEP does not control for differences in state education policies or background differences among students, and that the terms “advanced” and “proficient,” in the NAEP world, are strictly technical. They are defined here for math and here for reading.

Research and reporting by Clark Merrefield