New interactive map: State-level performance of K–12 public schools in 50 states and the District of Columbia

As the COVID crisis drags on, experts increasingly stress the devastating impact of prolonged school closures on children’s education. Months stuck at home in “virtual school” — hours every day spent alone in front of a Zoom screen — is academically, socially, and emotionally damaging for many children. But the now-dominant focus on COVID’s impact could end up obscuring a reality that’s at least as important: Thousands of now-closed schools were failing to educate children even when they were open.


I’ve just published a new interactive map on state-by-state performance of public schools, aimed to help state policymakers and the public evaluate the performance of their state’s public school system. As the map reveals, long before COVID the educational performance of disadvantaged children was much worse — and achievement gaps much larger — than most people realize.

The map provides state-level 2019 data on percentages of lower-income eighth graders who failed to demonstrate minimum levels of competence in the core skills of reading and math, as indicated by scoring below the lowest level of “Basic” on the widely respected National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). It also shows achievement gaps between lower- and higher-income students, along with total per-student spending in 2017 (the last year of available data) in 2019 dollars and adjusted for state cost of living.

The map shows that large proportions of eighth graders in
2019 were failing to perform at even basic levels in reading and math, after
eight or nine years in school. Wide achievement gaps between lower-income
children and their higher-income peers were evident in every state. Specific
findings are as follows:

  • The
    percentages of lower-income eighth graders who scored below NAEP Basic ranged
    from 33 percent (Idaho) to 52 percent (DC) in reading and from 36 percent
    (Wyoming) to 59 percent (Alabama) in math. In 25 states and DC, at least 40
    percent of lower-income eighth-graders scored below Basic in reading. In 11
    states and DC, half or more scored below Basic in math.
  • The
    gap between the percentages of lower- and higher-income children who scored
    below NAEP Basic ranged from 14 to 37 percentage points, across states.
  • Spending
    in 2017 ranged from $7,748 to $20,590 per student in 2019 dollars, adjusted for
    state cost of living, with no clear relationship to achievement or gaps.

It’s clear that a large number of schools have been failing disadvantaged children to a stunning degree for years, despite massive public investment that’s reached over $700 billion annually. We’re now focusing a great deal on getting schools open again. But reopening previously failing schools will be much less help to children than we may like to acknowledge.

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