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States With the Best Public Schools

By Allison Kade Jan 27, 2020

America’s public schools received some disappointing news late last year. In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Education released the latest results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest nationally representative and ongoing assessment of American students’ knowledge and ability. 

The latest 2019 release includes math and reading scores for students in grades four and eight in reading and math. While performance largely improved from 1990 to 2013, scores across fourth grade reading, eighth grade reading and eighth grade math all significantly declined between 2017 and 2019. 

2019 results on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in reading and math for 4th and 8th grade

In an official statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos equated the findings to a “student achievement crisis,” noting that two out of three American students aren’t proficient readers. Fourth grade reading scores declined in 17 states, while eighth grade reading scores declined in 31 states. 

Test results in math weren’t much better. In 2019, just 41 percent of fourth graders and 34 percent of eighth graders were at or above the national math proficiency level. In 2017, those numbers were 40 percent and 34 percent, respectively.  

For parents with children nearing or already in grade school, the results might sound concerning. But it’s important to keep in mind that national averages don’t reflect local performance. Despite lackluster results at the national level, students in certain states continue to perform well. 

In general, states in the northern part of the U.S. demonstrate superior academic performance. Massachusetts, New Jersey, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wyoming and Connecticut report consistently above-average scores. On the other hand, Alabama, New Mexico, Louisiana and Arkansas stand out with below-average test scores across both subjects and grade levels. 

Maps showing higher NAEP scores in northern states

To identify the states with the best public education, researchers at Fabric created a composite score based on NAEP math and NAEP reading results for fourth- and eighth-grade public school students. Fabric’s composite score also factored in graduation rates and student-to-teacher ratios. 

After all, public education is a key point of pride for many people in this nation. Additionally, private school can easily cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, compared to a free public education. Even for families that might be able to afford such tuition costs, that much money can easily fund other important financial goals for families, such as building an emergency fund, paying off debt or exploring life insurance.

The 10 states offering the best public education boast test results that are up to 13 points above the national average. In all cases, these states report student-to-teacher ratios better than the national average of 16:1. Additionally, all but one of the top 10 states have graduation rates that exceed the national rate of 85 percent.

Here are the 10 states with the best public education.

States with the best public schools - capitol building in Lincoln, Nebraska surrounded by trees with red fall leaves.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

10. Nebraska

  • Composite score: 86.4

  • Grade 4 Math: 4 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 3 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 4 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 2 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 89%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 13.5

Nebraska boasts above-average NAEP results in all four subjects. In addition, this Midwestern state reports graduation rates and student-to-teacher ratios that are better than the national average. Students in Nebraska benefit from the State Board of Education’s Strategic Plan, which puts resources towards college, career and civic readiness, among other initiatives. 

States with the best public schools - capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin with the statue of a woman depicting the state motto "forward" with her hand gesture in the foreground.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

9. Wisconsin

  • Composite score: 88.4

  • Grade 4 Math: 2 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 1 point above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 8 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 5 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 89%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 14.6

Amid ongoing controversy over public school funding in the state, Wisconsin students continue performing above average across all measures. One of Wisconsin’s many educational strengths is its emphasis on connecting schools with their surrounding communities through various community education programs. Additionally, Wisconsin’s four-year-old kindergarten program (4K) has been associated with improved student outcomes.

States with the best public schools - capitol building in Montpelier, Vermont surrounded by a lush forest.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

8. Vermont

  • Composite score: 88.7

  • Grade 4 Math: 1 point below average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 3 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 6 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 6 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 89%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 10.8

Students in this sparsely populated New England state benefit from small class sizes and above-average educational funding per student. Additionally, the Vermont State Board of Education uses a proficiency-based learning model geared towards college and career success. Unlike traditional education systems that advance students based on classroom time, proficiency-based learning focuses on students’ competency across specific learning outcomes.

States with the best public schools - capitol building dome in Minnesota

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

7. Minnesota

  • Composite score: 88.9

  • Grade 4 Math: 8 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 3 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 10 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 2 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 83%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 15.4

Although Minnesota’s test scores already rank among the highest in the nation, the state continues pumping resources to underperforming schools through its Regional Centers of Excellence (RCEs). These centers provide curricular, leadership and implementation support for schools that need to undergo an improvement plan. Aside from RCEs, the Minnesota state legislature also launched the Innovation Research Zone Pilot project, which encourages K-12 schools to form partnerships with organizations such as universities, local government, nonprofits and businesses to improve student learning.

States with the best public schools - capitol building and downtown skyline in Richmond, Virginia.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

6. Virginia

  • Composite score: 89.1

  • Grade 4 Math: 7 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 5 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 6 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: No difference from average

  • Graduation rate: 87%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 14.0

In the wake of statewide increases in English language learners and economically disadvantaged students, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) released a plan in 2015 to “ensure excellent educators for all students.” Interestingly, in recent years the VDOE has also taken steps to lessen the importance of standardized tests and requires students to take Standards of Learning tests in fewer subjects. Nevertheless, Virginia performs well on the NAEP and is the only state in the South to make the top ten list.

States with the best public schools - capitol building in Cheyenne, Wyoming

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

5. Wyoming

  • Composite score: 92.6

  • Grade 4 Math: 6 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 8 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 5 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 3 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 86%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 12.5

This sparsely populated state has a student-to-teacher ratio of 12.5, well below the national average of 16. Unlike many other states, Wyoming bases its school finances on a funding formula that is “cost-based” rather than “wealth-based,” effectively redistributing necessary resources to less affluent school districts. In 2018, the state legislature passed an initiative called Boot Up Wyoming 2022 to add a computer science curriculum in all Wyoming schools.

States with the best public schools - capitol building in Hartford, Connecticut with a tree with orange leaves during the fall in the foreground.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

4. Connecticut

  • Composite score: 93.4

  • Grade 4 Math: 3 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 5 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 5 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 8 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 88%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 12.6

Connecticut prides itself on having the country’s only unified technical high school system. In addition, many efforts on the legislature’s education agenda emphasize career-focused apprenticeships and technical education. Other recent legislative changes include measures to address the opportunities gap and directives for diversifying the public school curriculum.

States with the best public schools - New Hampshire capitol building

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

3. New Hampshire

  • Composite score: 95.1

  • Grade 4 Math: 5 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 5 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 6 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 6 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 89%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 12.3

While New Hampshire outperforms most other states on standardized tests, its students also benefit from an educational approach that emphasizes hands-on, skills-based learning. For example, the state’s Department of Education recently launched an initiative called Learn Everywhere, which enables students to earn academic credits for activities and internships they pursue outside of the classroom. In 2019, the New Hampshire state legislature also passed several bills with the goal of improving career readiness, especially through technical coursework.

States with the best public schools - street in Boston, MA with school bus.

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

2. Massachusetts

  • Composite score: 96.4

  • Grade 4 Math: 7 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 12 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 13 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 11 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 88%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 13.3

In 1993, Massachusetts passed the Education Reform Act, which increased public school funding, especially for less affluent districts. The overall statewide result was increased accountability, high academic standards and improved student outcomes. Massachusetts’ reputation for quality education carries into postsecondary learning as well, with its high concentration of prestigious colleges including Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Northeastern and Boston College.

States with the best public schools - New Jersey capitol building

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

1. New Jersey

  • Composite score: 98.9

  • Grade 4 Math: 6 points above average

  • Grade 4 Reading: 8 points above average

  • Grade 8 Math: 11 points above average

  • Grade 8 Reading: 8 points above average

  • Graduation rate: 91%

  • Student-to-teacher ratio: 12.2

New Jersey has the highest graduation rate in the country, and its test scores are significantly above the national average across the board. New Jersey’s focus on education begins early in a child’s development, and the state’s Department of Education recently expanded aid for preschool programs in high-needs areas. Additionally, many New Jersey public schools integrate elements of social and emotional learning into the curriculum, which has been correlated with improved performance. 

Methodology & Detailed Findings

National and state-level test scores are from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The test is administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, within the U.S. Department of Education. The results of NAEP are released every two years as The Nation’s Report Card. Graduation rates and student-to-teacher ratios are also from the National Center for Education Statistics. All data is for public school students only. 

To identify the states with the best public education, Fabric created a composite score based on states’ NAEP math and reading results for fourth- and eighth-grade public school students. Fabric’s composite score also factored in graduation rates and student-to-teacher ratios. 

Largely, researchers found little year-over-year improvement in performance. For example, no states showed improvement across all four tests and only Washington, D.C. and Mississippi showed improvement in three out of the four tests. These states also rank towards the bottom of the list when comparing states across all four tests. Most states experienced no change or drops in scores between 2017 and 2019. 

At the test level, fourth grade math is the only test that saw a significant increase in average public scores from 2017 to 2019. Eight states experienced significant increases in scores: Washington, D.C., Mississippi, Nevada, Oregon, Tennessee, Arizona, Connecticut and Delaware. The remaining states stayed the same or declined.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, eighth grade reading scores were the worst among the tests. Washington, D.C. was the only state to see an improvement in this score. Comparatively, 31 states saw their scores decline and the remaining states reported no significant change. 

Map of states with increases or decreases in NAEP between 2017 and 2019

The U.S. Department of Education administered the first NAEP in 1969 with voluntary assessments for states beginning in 1990. Since 1990, the nation’s schools have seen improvement in math and reading performance. In 1990, 13 percent of fourth-grade students were considered proficient in math compared to 41 percent of students in 2019. Similarly, 29 percent of eighth-grade students were proficient in reading in 1990 compared to 34 percent of students in 2019. 

Overall improvements in math and reading have been hard to come by in recent years. Still, while the latest NAEP results leave room for improvement, many states can take pride in their performance. For example, Mississippi saw its scores in fourth and eighth grade reading rise after implementing the Literacy-Based Promotion Act, which requires third-grade students to show a certain level of reading before moving on to fourth grade. Mississippi is one of 16 states with this type of requirement. 

Fabric exists to help young families master their money. Our articles abide by strict editorial standards.

Fabric Insurance Agency, LLC offers a mobile experience for people on the go who want an easy and fast way to purchase life insurance.


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Written by

Allison Kade

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