10 States With the Best (and Worst) Public Schools

Students in an elementary classroom sit with their books open

Unfortunately, education isn’t equal | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

What is the goal of education? Some parents believe it is to prepare their children academically, perhaps for college or another aspiration. Others say it is to prepare them for work, and still other parents believe it’s to shape students into responsible citizens. But no matter what, most of us would agree that schools need to at least be teaching children basic principles of reading, writing, and arithmetic, as the adage goes.

By and large, the education system in the United States hasn’t earned a gold star recently, at least in the eyes of the public. Roughly 55% of respondents to a 2016 Gallup poll said they were completely or somewhat dissatisfied with K-12 education in America. Aside from a peak dissatisfaction rate in 2000, that’s on par with some of the highest levels of disapproval in the past 16 years. Another Gallup and PDK poll found that only 27% of parents believe that the current standards in their schools prepare their children well or extremely well for life after education.

Quality education? A national scorecard

Still, some schools perform better than others, especially since education is distilled into state and local jurisdictions. Some federal taxes go toward education grants and other projects, but a significant portion of education funding comes from state and local governments. State-by-state standards can also affect how students in one public school do compared to another.

The closest thing we get to a nationwide comparison of student performance is the NAEP tests, which stand for National Assessment of Educational Progress. These tests are given in a number of subjects, including math, reading and science, and students are assessed in grades 4, 8, and 12. To determine the best and worst states for education in the country, we ranked them according to their scores for reading assessment in eighth grade, but we also include the scores for math and science for those states as well.

Here are the best and worst states for education, according to their standardized scores. Do you live in one?

Best states for education

Teacher helps boy to use digital tablet

Teacher working with a student | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

According to the most recent NAEP results from 2015, the entire nation could use some help in eighth-grade academics. According to the results, just 34% of students across the country are considered proficient in reading. Only 34% are proficient in science, and a slightly lower 33% are proficient in math. All three of these basic subjects are arguably vital for life after the classroom, but reading in particular is shown to affect a student’s overall success. Here are the states whose students scored the best average scores in the nation for reading in eighth grade.

10. Nebraska

  • Reading: 269 (National average: 265)
  • Math: 286 (National average: 282)
  • Science: 160 (National average: 154)

Though we’ll see that over half the top states in the nation are located in the Northeast, we start in the Midwest with Nebraska, who was the 10th-best state in the nation for its composite reading score. Reading and math scores are on a scale from zero to 500, and science scores are on a scale from zero to 300. Nebraska scored above the national average in each, but, unfortunately, still falls short of the common standards. Only 38% of students in Nebraska are considered proficient in reading, according to NAEP’s state profiles.

9. Idaho

Welcome sign on the border of Idaho

Welcome sign on the border of Idaho | iStock.com/oscity

  • Reading: 269 | National average: 265
  • Math: 284 | National average: 282
  • Science: 160 | National average: 154

We go a little farther west to Idaho, the state with the next highest reading score among eighth graders. Idaho’s scores are just slightly above the national average in almost every category, with a slightly higher margin in science. Just 37% of students are proficient in reading at this level, according to NAEP’s assessment.

8. Wisconsin

President Obama at a school in Wisconsin

Former U.S. President Barack Obama greets a group of teachers, students, and school officials before giving an address about strengthening America’s education system during a visit to Wright Middle School on November 4, 2009 in Madison, Wisconsin | Scott Olson/Getty Images

  • Reading: 270 | National average: 265
  • Math: 289 | National average: 282
  • Science: 159 | National average: 154

The composite scores are all fairly close from state to state, but the reading score nudges up just a bit among students in Wisconsin. A slightly higher 39% of students are proficient in the subject. The state does relatively well in math, compared to the rest of the nation, ranking sixth overall.

7. Montana

Elementary students

Elementary students | Matt Cardy/Getty Images

  •  Reading: 270 | National average: 265
  • Math: 287 | National average: 282
  • Science: 161 | National average: 154

Students in Montana earned similar marks to those in Wisconsin; they tied for the overall reading score. However, students in Montana had a slightly lower rate of reading proficiency, which was at 37%.

6. Minnesota

A student reads a book

A student reads a book with her teacher | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

  • Reading: 270 | National average: 265
  • Math: 294 | National average: 282
  • Science: 162 | National average: 154

Minnesota falls in the middle of the top states for reading scores, coming in at No. 6. The state’s standout score is in math, ranking at No. 2 across the nation. Still, reading proficiency is at 40%, the highest among the other states on the list so far.

5. New Jersey

Elementary school students

Elementary school students | Chris Hondros/Getty Images

  • Reading: 271 | National average: 265
  • Math: 293 | National average: 282
  • Science: 156 | National average: 154

Reading proficiency is just slightly higher by 41% in New Jersey, but the science score is just slightly above the national average — not a great mark for the state. Its math score is ranked fourth in the country, significantly higher than the nation’s average performance.

This is where we start to see a potential factor of property taxes coming into play. New Jersey and other top states on this list are known for having high property taxes, which, in turn, often go toward funding state and local education. Though that doesn’t necessarily cause better scores, it can explain more resources for classrooms and teachers.

4. Connecticut

students at work on their computers

Students work on their computers | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

  • Reading: 273 | National average: 265
  • Math: 284 | National average: 282
  • Science: 155 | National average: 154

Connecticut’s reading scores are some of the best in the nation, but math and science are another thing. Both of those are just slightly above the national average, falling more in the middle of the pack. Still, 43% of eighth graders in the state are proficient in reading. While that’s still an abysmal percentage, it’s higher than the rest of the states on the list so far.

3. Vermont

Pizza Hut school literacy project

Students participating in a Pizza Hut literacy project at school | Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Pizza Hut

  • Reading: 274 | National average: 265
  • Math: 290 | National average: 282
  • Science: 163 | National average: 154

Vermont falls in the top states among all three subjects, at No. 3 in the nation for reading and science (it ranks No. 5 in math). An estimated 44% of students are proficient in reading — not great overall, but good enough to be the third-highest rate on our list.

2. Massachusetts

Students saying Pledge of Allegiance

Students saying the Pledge of Allegiance | Mark Wilson/Getty Images

  • Reading: 274 | National average: 265
  • Math: 297 | National average: 282
  • Science: 162 | National average: 154

Like Vermont, this Northeastern state also ranks highly in all three subject areas. It’s second in the nation for its reading score, and 46% of students are considered proficient — the highest on this list. The state ranks at No. 4 for science, and has the highest math score in the country.

1. New Hampshire

Students reading books in a classroom

Students reading books in a classroom | Tim Boyle/Getty Images

  • Reading: 275 | National average: 265
  • Math: 294 | National average: 282
  • Science: 165 | National average: 154

Small in size but mighty in academics, apparently, is New Hampshire. Students in eighth grade here had the highest overall reading score in the nation, 10 points above the national average. New Hampshire students also ranked No. 2 in science and No. 3 in math, respectively. The somber note: Though reading scores were the highest here on average, only 45% of eighth graders were considered proficient at reading. Most states don’t assess their high school seniors with this same test, but that doesn’t bode well for even the best education systems in the country.

Let’s check out the worst states for education.

Worst states for education

Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher

Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher | Columbia Pictures

Now we turn to the states where students scored the lowest on their eighth grade reading exams. As we saw with the best-performing states, these areas often had similar rankings for math and science, too.

10. West Virginia

  • Reading: 260 | National average: 265
  • Math: 271 | National average: 282
  • Science: 150 | National average: 154

We see a drastic step down from the top states in the country when we look at the lowest-achieving states, starting with West Virginia. All of these states have scores below the national average. West Virginia starts a full five points lower than that benchmark, and only 27% of eighth graders are considered proficient in reading.

9. Alabama

Elementary school children

Elementary school children put together a puzzle | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

  • Reading: 259 | National average: 265
  • Math: 267 | National average: 282
  • Science: 141 | National average: 154

Alabama’s not the first state in the South on this list, and it won’t be the last. Alabama students didn’t score quite as poorly in reading as they did in math and science. They scored second-to-last in both categories. Just 26% of students are proficient in reading, however, so it’s somber news all around.

8. Arkansas

Students recite the Pledge of Allegiance

Students recite the Pledge of Allegiance | William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

  • Reading: 259 | National average: 265
  • Math: 275 | National average: 282
  • Science: 148 | National average: 154

A slightly higher 27% of students are proficient in reading in Arkansas, but that’s not blue-ribbon news. Students still struggled to earn a decent score in reading and science, but scored more toward the middle of the pack in math, falling outside the bottom 10 scores.

7. California

School bus in California

School bus in California | David McNew/Getty Images

  • Reading: 259 | National average: 265
  • Math: 275 | National average: 282
  • Science: 143 | National average: 154

California is one of the most populous states in the nation, which likely hosts a variety of school systems within it. Still, the average scores aren’t stellar. Just 28% of students are considered proficient in reading, and the state is also in the bottom 10 for scores in math and science.

6. Nevada

Student doing her homework

Student doing her homework | Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

  • Reading: 259 | National average: 265
  • Math: 275 | National average: 282
  • Science: 149 | National average: 154

California’s neighbor doesn’t have much better luck with achieving high test scores, at least by NAEP standards. Roughly 27% of students are proficient in reading, and Nevada comes in at No. 44 in the nation for science and math.

5. Hawaii

A group of students works on their tablets

Students work on their tablets | iStock.com/dolgachov

  • Reading: 257 | National average: 265
  • Math: 279 | National average: 282
  • Science: 144 | National average: 154

Hawaii might be an island paradise, but the same can’t be said for its school testing results. Hawaii has the fifth-worst reading scores in the nation, and only 26% of students are considered proficient at an eighth grade level. The state also ranked at No. 5 as the lowest in science scores, but stayed out of the bottom 10 for math (it ranked No. 36).

4. Louisiana

A teacher prepares her classroom

A teacher prepares her classroom | Dave Einsel/Getty Images

  • Reading: 255 | National average: 265
  • Math: 268 | National average: 282
  • Science: not given | National average: 154

We go back to the South for the fourth-worst state in the nation for reading scores. Just 23% of students there are proficient in reading — less than a quarter of the student population. Sadly, the proficiency rates continue to drop for the rest of the list. Louisiana was the third-worst state in the nation based on its math scores. Because it did not submit testing data for science, we don’t know how Louisiana’s students compare to the rest of the nation in that subject.

3. New Mexico

Students walk to school

Students walk to school | Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

  • Reading: 253 | National average: 265
  • Math: 271 | National average: 282
  • Science: 143 | National average: 154

Just 20%, or one-fifth, of the students in New Mexico are considered proficient in reading at grade level. It’s not necessarily surprising, then, that students scored an average of 12 points lower than the national average on the reading assessment. New Mexico ranked as the fifth worst state for math scores, and the third worst state for science scores.

2. Mississippi

Elementary school kids in school corridor

Young students have their picture taken | iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages

  • Reading: 252 | National average: 265
  • Math: 271 | National average: 282
  • Science: 140 | National average: 154

Mississippi ranks as the second-worst state in terms of reading scores, and only 20% of students are considered proficient at an eighth-grade level. The state had the lowest science score nationwide, and was ranked as the sixth worst in math.

1. Washington, D.C.

Students eating lunch at school

Students eating lunch at school | Mario Villafuerte/Getty Images

  • Reading: 248 | National average: 265
  • Math: 263 | National average: 282
  • Science: not given | National average: 154

Our nation’s capital is known for its struggle to work toward quality schools, and the NAEP data shows why. Students in Washington D.C. schools had the lowest scores for reading and math, and less than a fifth (19%) of eighth graders are considered to be proficient in reading. The region did not report its science scores, but the data that is available isn’t encouraging.

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