Close-up photograph of a perfect grade on a scantron test.

(Credit: Constantine Pankin/Shutterstock)

If you’ve ever wondered how your state’s schools are performing compared to the rest of the nation, a new analysis sheds light on where students are making the grade — and where they’re falling behind. Using a combination of data from national math and reading assessments, as well as scores from the SAT, ACT, and even the medical school admissions test MCAT, researchers at Forbes Advisor Education have ranked all 50 states based on their standardized testing prowess.

So, which states came out on top? The honor of highest overall test scores goes to Massachusetts, followed by Utah, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Connecticut rounding out the top five. What do these high-achieving states have in common? According to the researchers, factors like rigorous academic standards, sufficient education funding, favorable student-teacher ratios, and a commitment to professional development and successful education policies all play a role.

On the other end of the spectrum, Oklahoma was last among the states with the lowest standardized test scores, followed by New Mexico, West Virginia, Alabama, and Mississippi. The study authors point out that various educational, economic, and social challenges likely contribute to these states’ struggling scores. Lower socioeconomic status can mean fewer resources allocated to schools, for example.

To arrive at the rankings (full list at bottom of the post), the Forbes Advisor Education team took a comprehensive look at test data from elementary through college levels. For younger students, they analyzed the percentage of fourth and eighth graders scoring at or above proficiency in math and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called “The Nation’s Report Card.”

At the high school level, the average SAT and ACT scores of each state’s graduating class of 2023 factored into the ranking. To gauge how a state’s college-bound population fares, the team even included the average MCAT scores of med school applicants, broken down by their state of residence.

The resulting analysis paints an intriguing picture of the state of American education. In top-ranked Massachusetts, over 40% of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency in math and reading, a level they largely maintained through eighth grade. The state’s students also nabbed the nation’s highest ACT and MCAT scores on average.

High school student studying, taking exam in class
The honor of highest overall test scores across the United States goes to Massachusetts, followed by Utah, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. (© Monkey Business – stock.adobe.com)

Contrast that with last-place Oklahoma, where just over a quarter of fourth graders hit the proficiency mark in math and reading. By eighth grade, those numbers had slipped even further. It’s a pattern seen across the lower-ranked states: while students in the top tier tend to hold steady as they progress through school, those in struggling states often see a marked drop-off in performance over time. These findings underscore the stark disparities in American education and the critical importance of addressing them.

“The contrasting performances highlight how various factors may impact standardized testing outcomes at various grade levels, emphasizing the importance of addressing educational disparities,” the Forbes Advisor Education team writes.

However, the new rankings also offer a glimmer of hope, showcasing states that are getting it right and potentially providing a roadmap for others to follow. By identifying the policies and practices that are working in high-performing states, educators and policymakers can work towards replicating those successes nationwide.

Of course, standardized testing is not without its critics. Many argue that the one-size-fits-all approach of standardized exams fails to account for students’ diverse learning styles and backgrounds. There are concerns about cultural and socioeconomic biases baked into the tests themselves. Some educators worry that an overemphasis on testing can narrow the curriculum and stifle creativity in the classroom.

Despite these valid criticisms, standardized assessments remain a key tool for gauging student progress and holding schools accountable. When used appropriately as part of a holistic evaluation system, test scores can provide valuable insights into where students are thriving and where they need extra support.

As the nation continues to grapple with the far-reaching impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on education, these types of data-driven analyses will be more important than ever in steering the ship back on course. By highlighting the states leading the pack in academic achievement and those falling behind, rankings like this one can help inform the difficult decisions ahead.

So, while a state’s position on this list certainly doesn’t tell the whole story of its educational landscape, it does offer a useful benchmark – and perhaps a wake-up call in some cases. As students across the country head back to school this fall, policymakers and educators will undoubtedly be taking a hard look at these numbers and asking what they can do to help every child reach their full potential, no matter what state they call home.

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