Rhode Island: An island of mediocrity surrounded by strong student achievement

Rhode Island has never found national rankings to be its friend whether about education, family prosperity, or drug use and sadly, too many of our lawmakers and leaders prefer to criticize the lists or argue about the risk of making comparisons rather than stare our deficiencies in the face and strive to get better. Luckily, our Governor Gina Raimondo does pay attention to comparative measures rather than dismiss them and that may bode well for our little state in the coming years.

The Education Week Research Center has just published a report called Quality Counts 2017 in which states are ranked based on their educational performance and predictably, New England shines with almost all overall grades of B. Except for two: Rhode Island and Maine.

Massachusetts takes first place among the states for the third year in a row, with a B and a score of 86.5. It’s followed by five states earning grades of B: New Jersey (85.6), Vermont (83.8), New Hampshire (83.4), Maryland (82.8), and Connecticut (82.7).

Overall Grades on State Report Cards

Yet again, Rhode Island finds itself quite literally surrounded by high performing states, spending the same, and not getting the same results. The question is always whether or not Rhode Islanders will see this as a call to action or another reason to put our heads in the sand and make ourselves feel better by only comparing our education results with the neighboring town within our own state that is doing worse than we are.  It’s as if we literally are in denial over the indisputable fact that our children here in the Ocean State will have to compete with kids from neighboring states for college admissions or jobs. Newsflash: Colleges, universities and employers want the best and we can’t continue to perform far below our neighbors and pretend it won’t impact our children’s future or our state’s economy, not to mention the overall health of our communities.

Our kids have it in them to achieve at the same levels as their peers in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We can absolutely get there but not until we make it a priority and believe in our potential to actually do it.

So How Bad is It?

There are highs and lows. The positive spin is that our overall grade based on students achievement, chance for success, and school finance in the aggregate puts us in 10th place nationally with an overall score of C+. Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut all outperform us but it is definitely good to be in the top ten, and we are.

When it comes to school finance, we really shine, not only in how much we spend but also on how equitably we spend it. Our national rank for school finance is our best one, coming in at number 6. As the map below shows, all of New England scores very high in school finance.

The finance indicators in Quality Counts 2017 are based on the most recent data available from the federal government, which are from 2014. Quality Counts does not report raw spending data. All expenditures are adjusted by factors such as regional cost differences, in order to facilitate apples-to-apples comparisons. (EdWeek, 12/30/16)



The news, however, is far more disconcerting when it comes to our children’s chance for success as well their overall academic achievement. Chance for success looks at family income, parent education levels, early childhood data, school data, and adult outcomes and we find ourselves 17th in the country for that category.

Chance for Success Indicators

But when it comes to student achievement, arguably the most important category there is when it comes to measuring educational quality, Rhode Island ranks 23rd and earns a C-.  If we look only at our current performance, one of three subcategories, our grade is a D and our rank falls to 30th. And before people default to the usual “yeah buts” and blame the funding, it’s important to remember that school finance is the only category in which we find ourselves up near the top with our New England neighbors.  In fact, Massachusetts is ranked below Rhode Island and actually spends less per pupil than we do (though the numbers are so close they might as well be the same.)

State Report Card map based on student achievement.achievmentmap


And not only do we rank higher than the Bay State in school finance but we also rank higher than New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont.

So let’s dispel the myth, once and for all, that blaming funding for our academic under-performance is a productive use of time. It isn’t. 100 percent of Rhode Island students attend school in a district where the per pupil expenditure is at or above the national average. If money is the main driver as many like to claim, it is inexplicable that there is such disparity between our spending and our student achievement.

Unless, of course, we are not spending our money well. But that’s a blog for another day.

(All maps shown can be found here.)

This post originally appeared Good School Hunting.

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Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system, persistent but surmountable achievement gaps, and what she sees as a culture of low expectations that disproportionately impacts low-income students of color. She is the mom of three young sons and you can often find her on the sidelines of their countless sports practices and games. She is committed to the belief that zip code isn’t destiny, that parents deserve choices when it comes to educating their children, and that too many “good” schools are falling down on the job in too many ways. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she now calls Rhode Island home with her boys, her husband, and her big fluffy dog, Griffey. She writes about her corner of New England at Good School Hunting.

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