• Commentary

Student Achievement and Spending



Where does Georgia really rank in student achievement and what does that tell us about spending?

It’s difficult to compare state student achievement data because demographics vary greatly. In Georgia, for example, 60 percent of students are deemed “low income,” while only 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s students are low income. Many people argue that comparing these states without adjusting for these demographics is very unfair. So how would Georgia compare if you adjusted for demographics?

The Urban Institute has the answer in their recently published study. The study “adjusts the relative performance of each state for the following rich set of student level factors: gender, race and ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch, limited English proficient, special education, age, whether the student was given an accommodation on the NAEP exam (e.g., extra time or a separate room), whether the student has various amenities in their home (e.g., computer, Internet, own room, dishwasher, and clothes dryer), the number of books in the home, the language spoken at home, and the family structure (e.g., two-parent, single-parent, foster).” The study uses the nationally recognized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to measure student achievement.

In the first measure of how well Georgia students do relative to students with similar characteristics across the country, Georgia comes in 19th. Massachusetts ranks #1 and West Virginia is #50. In the second measure of how much scores have increased over the last decade (2002-2014), Georgia ranks ninth. Nevada ranks #1 and South Dakota comes in at #50.

So what has changed over the last decade that could have led to this great improvement in student achievement?

Higher standards: Georgia dramatically upgraded the rigor of its academic standards in 2004. Georgia went from having some of the weakest standards to being ranked in the top ten in the nation by the Fordham Institute in both the math and English language arts.

School Choice: Georgia also greatly expanded school choice, with several positive changes to its charter school law, a constitutional amendment in support of charter schools, creation of a special needs voucher and creation of a tuition tax credit scholarship program. Georgia also became a national leader in digital learning during this time period.

State Spending Cuts: This time period also corresponds to the “austerity cuts” that reduced state funding for education starting in 2002.

Spending vs. Student Achievement

Spending also requires an adjustment to compare apples to apples. The cost of living varies greatly among states, so adjusting education spending per student for state cost of living differences as calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis is appropriate.

So if you compare adjusted student achievement with adjusted spending, you find several states that have higher student achievement with lower spending:

State Adjusted Achievement Rank FY14 Adjusted Spending Per Student
Texas 3 $8,600
Florida 4 $8,535
North Carolina 7 $9,160
Colorado 12 $8,511
Washington 13 $9,372
Georgia 19 $9,890

This does not reflect the more than $1 billion of increased education funding in Georgia since Fiscal Year 2014. For comparison, Georgia has more than 1.7 million students, so every dollar change in per student spending is equivalent to more than $1.7 million dollars. (By one estimate, just last year’s increase in education funding was the highest in the nation.)

 

It’s difficult to compare state student achievement data because demographics vary greatly. In Georgia, for example, 60 percent of students are deemed “low income,” while only 40 percent of Pennsylvania’s students are low income. Many people argue that comparing these states without adjusting for these demographics is very unfair. So how would Georgia compare if you adjusted for demographics?

The Urban Institute has the answer in their recently published study. The study “adjusts the relative performance of each state for the following rich set of student level factors: gender, race and ethnicity, eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch, limited English proficient, special education, age, whether the student was given an accommodation on the NAEP exam (e.g., extra time or a separate room), whether the student has various amenities in their home (e.g., computer, Internet, own room, dishwasher, and clothes dryer), the number of books in the home, the language spoken at home, and the family structure (e.g., two-parent, single-parent, foster).” The study uses the nationally recognized National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to measure student achievement.

In the first measure of how well Georgia students do relative to students with similar characteristics across the country, Georgia comes in 19th. Massachusetts ranks #1 and West Virginia is #50. In the second measure of how much scores have increased over the last decade (2002-2014), Georgia ranks ninth. Nevada ranks #1 and South Dakota comes in at #50.

So what has changed over the last decade that could have led to this great improvement in student achievement?

Higher standards: Georgia dramatically upgraded the rigor of its academic standards in 2004. Georgia went from having some of the weakest standards to being ranked in the top ten in the nation by the Fordham Institute in both the math and English language arts.

School Choice: Georgia also greatly expanded school choice, with several positive changes to its charter school law, a constitutional amendment in support of charter schools, creation of a special needs voucher and creation of a tuition tax credit scholarship program. Georgia also became a national leader in digital learning during this time period.

State Spending Cuts: This time period also corresponds to the “austerity cuts” that reduced state funding for education starting in 2002.

Spending vs. Student Achievement

Spending also requires an adjustment to compare apples to apples. The cost of living varies greatly among states, so adjusting education spending per student for state cost of living differences as calculated by the Bureau of Economic Analysis is appropriate.

So if you compare adjusted student achievement with adjusted spending, you find several states that have higher student achievement with lower spending:

State Adjusted Achievement Rank FY14 Adjusted Spending Per Student
Texas 3 $8,600
Florida 4 $8,535
North Carolina 7 $9,160
Colorado 12 $8,511
Washington 13 $9,372
Georgia 19 $9,890

This does not reflect the more than $1 billion of increased education funding in Georgia since Fiscal Year 2014. For comparison, Georgia has more than 1.7 million students, so every dollar change in per student spending is equivalent to more than $1.7 million dollars. (By one estimate, just last year’s increase in education funding was the highest in the nation.)