Indiana is on the cutting edge of education reform in the United States, but it has been a “landmark year” for education in general, according to the latest edition of the Report Card on American Education, an annual report released by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
ALEC, a non-profit collection of conservative state legislators that endorses and promotes legislation on a variety of topics, is on its nineteenth edition of the Report Card, which grades each U.S. state based on its adoption of certain educational reform legislation backed by ALEC, such as laws allowing charter schools, creating school vouchers, or mandating better-qualified and more accountable teachers.
It also ranks states based on how well low-income students are performing on interstate National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.
In the 2014 edition of the Report Card, Indiana received a B+ for its school reform laws, the report’s top ranking, thanks to its strong endorsement of charter schools, low regulation of homeschooling, and new, expansive school voucher system.
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After Indiana, the highest-graded states included Florida, Arizona, Oklahoma and Louisiana, which have all embraced similarly expansive school choice agendas.
While grading was often tough, with only two states even exceeding a B-, ALEC still described 2013 as a stupendous one for education reform. A whopping eleven states have created or expanded programs allowing for school vouchers or other means of private school choice.
Sixteen states have significantly strengthened their charter school laws, while only eight continue to have no charter school law at all. Fifteen states now assign schools letter grades based on their performance, an approach ALEC promotes as bringing needed honesty accountability to state education systems.
Not every state has hopped on the reform train, however. While no states received a full-blown F from ALEC, North Dakota brought up the rear with the sole D. The state’s poor grade didn’t reflect its academic performance, which is middle-of-the road.
Rather, the state was primarily weighed down by its total lack of both charter schools and school vouchers, as well as few accountability measures. Despite its very rural nature, the school has also made no effort to promote digital learning, another reform ALEC encourages.
The Great Plains region in general is lagging in ALEC’s eyes. Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas all received D or D+ ratings, while only four other states did so
Dr. Matthew Ladner, one of the Report Card’s authors, told The Daily Caller News Foundation those states’ low scores may reflect a complacency on their part, since they have typically scored well on standardized tests compared with other states.
“In 2003, when our clock starts, they had relatively high scores, and they still have relatively high scores, but they don’t have a lot of improvement going on,” Ladner said.
In addition to grading states on their reform efforts, the ALEC report also ranked them on how well low-income students were doing on NAEP tests relative to their peers elsewhere, an approach Ladner said allows for comparing states while reducing the influence of economic differences.
“A lot of the time, you’ll see in the news ‘Connecticut outscores Mississippi.’ Well, of course it does,” Ladner said. “Connecticut is one of the wealthiest states, and Mississippi is one of the least wealthy.”
What matters more than overall average scores, Ladner said, is how well each state’s low-income students perform, regardless of how numerous they are. Under ALEC’s calculations, the state doing best at improving the outcomes for poorer students was Massachusetts, which in the past decade has seen NAEP scores soar for both four and eight graders, especially in mathematics. Backing up Massachusetts in the top five are New Jersey, Vermont, Indiana, and Colorado.
The report finds that a great many states, however, have been making small but steady improvements on NAEP exams. Altogether, 22 states have made statistically significant gains in all four of NAEP’s tests (fourth grade reading, fourth grade math, eighth grade reading, eighth grade math) in the past decade.
In the past, ALEC’s report has faced criticism from the left for grading states in a manner that focuses extensively on school choice, while ignoring other areas such as school funding. Ladner did not dispute this focus, but said it is simply a reflection of what works best in school reform. He cited Wyoming as an example, saying the state had plowed a great deal of money into education during its recent economic boom, only to see almost no results.
“There’s no greater means of education reform than simply allowing a parent to match the strengths of their child with the strengths of a particular school,” he told the DCNF. “There’s nothing a legislator, or governor, or state DoE can do to emulate that.”
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