U.S. Education Gets Low Grade on ALEC Report Card

Published November 1, 2004

“Overall, the facts presented by this year’s Report Card on American Education give us no cause for celebration. In fact, they confirm the same trend presented in past years’ reports: increased spending without corresponding improvement in student performance. Over ten years have passed since the Goals 2000 agenda was proposed, and America has failed to reach these goals, despite increasing per-pupil expenditures by more than 50 percent over the past twenty years.”

That is the sobering conclusion of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s 11th edition of the Report Card on American Education: A State by State Analysis: 1981-2003, released in September 2004.

The report card provides demographic information plus statistics and analysis on K-12 achievement, expenditures, and resources for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The report contains more than 50 tables and 25 figures that display more than 100 measures of educational resources and achievement, using data from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the College Board, the Census Bureau, ACT, Inc., and the National Education Association. The ALEC report also includes information on different parental choice options, including detailed information on charter school laws.

Report author Andrew T. LeFevre analyzed student achievement and per-pupil spending but found no correlation between education inputs, such as per-pupil spending and teacher salaries, and education outputs, such as achievement on standardized tests. The only inputs he found that correlated with higher student achievement were higher pupil-teacher ratios, fewer students per school, and state budgets with a smaller proportion of federal dollars. The correlation, however, was weak and not consistent over the two decades examined.

Education Expenditures

States with the highest per-pupil expenditures in the 2001-2002 school year were New York ($11,029), the District of Columbia (11,009), Connecticut ($10,528), and Rhode Island ($10,193). The states that spent the least were Utah ($4,769), Mississippi ($5,229), Arizona ($5,373), and Tennessee ($5,653).

During the same year, average teacher salaries were highest in New Jersey ($54,575), Connecticut ($54,300), and California ($53,870). Average teacher salaries were lowest in South Dakota ($31,295), North Dakota ($31,709), and Mississippi ($32,800).

Student Performance

The report ranks states according to the performance of their students on the 2003 Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) or the ACT assessment and the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) eighth-grade reading assessment. Combining all test scores, the top three states or jurisdictions were Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. The bottom three were New Mexico, Mississippi, and the District of Columbia.

Nearly half of high school graduates (48 percent) took the SAT in 2003, with a national average score of 1026. In the 24 states and the District of Columbia where the SAT is the primary college aptitude test, Wisconsin (1062), Oregon (1053), Arizona (1049), and New Jersey (1043) had the highest average scores. South Carolina students’ average score improved the most over the past two decades, rising from 896 in 1983 to 989 in 2003.

The ACT is the primary college aptitude test in 25 states with a 2003 national average score of 20.8. Three states had higher than average scores–Wisconsin (22.2), Minnesota (22.0), and Iowa (22.0).

On the eighth grade 2003 NAEP mathematics exam, 73 percent of public school students scored below the proficiency level and 32 percent scored below the “basic” level, indicating they lack even a partial mastery of the discipline. Minnesota (291), Massachusetts (287), and North Dakota (287) had the highest average eighth grade NAEP math scores. New Mexico (263), Mississippi (261), and the District of Columbia (243) had the lowest.

Since 1972, average SAT scores for all test-takers have declined by about 2.3 percent, with average verbal SAT scores falling by 5 percent and average math scores rising slightly.

SAT Scores

Lack of Correlation

The stagnation in student achievement over the past two decades took place during a period that also saw massive increases in spending, a rise in teacher salaries, and a reduction of the student-teacher ratio. From 1981-82 to 2001-02, per-pupil expenditures grew 53 percent in constant dollars, from $4,924 to $7,557. During the same period, the pupil-teacher ratio dropped from 19-1 to 16-1.

The top 10 states in terms of increased per-pupil spending in the past two decades were Georgia (+109 percent), Maine, South Carolina, Indiana, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Vermont, West Virginia, Ohio, and New Hampshire (+83 percent). Only two of those states, Vermont and New Hampshire, ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement.

Similarly, of the 10 states that reduced student-teacher ratios the most since 1981–New York (-29 percent), Virginia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Vermont, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Alabama, Ohio, and Arkansas (-23 percent)–only Vermont is one of the top 10 in terms of achievement.

“We simply cannot spend our way to better grades,” notes ALEC Executive Director Duane A. Parde in the report’s foreword, “but must make sure that we are making the right kinds of investments in our schools to promote high student achievement.”

Expanding Accountability and Choice

In looking for ways to improve student achievement, lawmakers and policymakers are increasingly embracing accountability policies such as merit pay and parental choice reforms. Charter schools, tuition vouchers, and tuition tax credits or deductions make it possible for parents of public school children to choose the best schools for their children.

“Instituting strong accountability measures that hold both students and teachers responsible for learning will help schools to focus resources where they are most needed,” writes LeFevre. “Increasing parental involvement in the process by giving them a greater say in determining which educational choice best meets the needs of their child guarantees that a child’s educational future is determined on the most local level possible–their parents.”

There’s a larger benefit to parental choice, too, adds LeFevre: “[B]y forcing the veritable monopoly that is our public school system to compete in an open educational market, we can harness the immense power of the free market system to bring about improvements in our nation’s schools.”

Krista Kafer ([email protected]) is senior policy analyst for education at The Heritage Foundation.

For more information …

The American Legislative Exchange Council’s September 2004 Report Card on American Education: A State by State Analysis: 1981-2003, by Andrew T. LeFevre, is available online at www.alec.org/meSWFiles/pdf/2004_Report_Card_on_Education.pdf.