In a study of “achievement growth” around the world, Eric Hanushek, Ludger Woessmann and I found the United States 25th among 40 countries in the rate of annual growth in student test score performance since the 1990s.
We also found that, among states within the United States, there was also wide variation in the annual rate of growth between 1992 and 2011. When data from all the 4th and 8th grade math, reading and science tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are combined, we found that the annual growth in some states (Maryland, Florida, Delaware and Massachusetts) was more than three times as great as in other states, including Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. (Nine states did not participate in NAEP testing in 1992, so these results are for the remaining 41 participating states.)
I used to think that any state close to the Canadian border had a top quality educational system. It was never clear exactly why. Perhaps because it was cold outside and there was nothing to do but read, write and calculate. Or perhaps it was simply because the Puritans, who had a passion for learning, were blown off course and settled in Massachusetts instead of Virginia. When their descendants moved west, they stayed in the same latitude.
Whatever the reason, the Canadian border theory explained inter-state variation quite well back in 1992. The seven states with the highest scores on NAEP were Iowa, North Dakota, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, in that order.
But, by 2011, three of the seven states had fallen out of the top tier. Iowa fell from first place to 22nd place, Wisconsin dropped from 6th place to 14th place, and Maine dropped from 3rd place to 12th. Meanwhile, Massachusetts rose to first place, proving that decline was not inevitable.
So who has taken over the top slots? It’s New Jersey, Maryland, and Connecticut—all of them in the northeast corridor in areas adjacent to the great metropolises of New York and Washington, D. C.
I am not sure what explains why some states are improving so much more rapidly than others, but if you look below you will see how differently the states rank today, as compared to how they ranked in 1992.