Report: RI school spending high, but achievement lags behind rival states

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island spends generously on public schools but still lags far behind the rest of New England when it comes to student achievement, according to a report released Thursday by Education Week, the nation’s preeminent publication for education news.

The report, titled Quality Counts, ranked every state and Washington, D.C., based on three key indicators: K-12 achievement, school spending and its chance for success index, which measures the role education plays in a person’s life from cradle to career.

Rhode Island earned a D+ for student achievement, despite making some of the biggest gains in the country on the math and reading sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a widely cited standardized test given to students in grades four, eight and 12. The report noted Rhode Island ranked No. 48 in the country when it comes to poverty-based achievement gaps in reading and math on the NAEP.

Among the state’s top achievements in that category was its marked improvement in 4th- and 8th-grade math proficiency levels, which saw double-digit increases between 2003 and 2013. The state also saw modest progress on Advance Placement (AP) scores over the course of 12 years.

On the downside, the report found that Rhode Island saw a slight decrease in its high-school graduation rate between 2000 and 2010, dropping to 71.9%.

By comparison, Massachusetts received top billing in the nation for its student achievement, earning a B. New Hampshire and Vermont ranked among the top five in country in that category, while Maine and Connecticut each earned a C-, tied with the national average. Only Mississippi and Washington, D.C., received an F in the achievement category.

“There can be little doubt that the environment in which public schools operate is more complex today than ever before,” Christopher B. Swanson, vice president of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week, said in a prepared statement.

“With more pressure to perform and expanded options available to students and their families, business as usual is no longer good enough for local school leaders who must fundamentally rethink how their school systems operate,” Swanson said.

Rhode Island ranked ahead of much of the country when it comes to school finances, trailing only Connecticut among New England states.

The report awarded the state a B, noting that Rhode Island spends approximately $14,794 per student, nearly $3,000 more than the national average. Roughly 4.1% of the state’s taxable resources go toward funding public K-12 education, ranking No. 10 in the nation.

Outside of New England, only Wyoming, West Virginia and New York earned higher marks for school finances. Idaho ranked dead last, earning a D-.

Elliot Krieger, a spokesman for R.I. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, said the recognition for the states’s “generous support for public schools and the equitable distribution of funds” is thanks to the 2010 passage of the education funding formula.

The state earned a B- on the report’s chance for success index, which analyzes socioeconomic factors such as family income and parental employment, school indicators like pre-school enrollment and math and reading proficiency levels, and adult outcomes such as postsecondary degrees and steady employment.

Approximately 49.2% of Rhode Island households had at least one parent with a postsecondary degree as of 2012, ranking No. 22 among all states. At 65.9%, the state ranked No. 3 in the country for young adults enrolled in postsecondary education or with a degree.

The state also ranked No. 22 for children enrolled in pre-school, with about 48.3% of three and four-year-olds taking part in some form of pre-K. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, who is running for governor, has said he wants to raise that rate to 76% by 2022.

Only 68.5% of eligible Rhode Island students were enrolled in kindergarten, worst in the country.

Massachusetts earned the country’s highest marks on the chance for success index while Nevada ranked last.

Education Week is considered one of the most respected sources for education coverage in the country. The newspaper was first published in 1981 and the organization has released its Quality Counts report every year since 1997.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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