For the first time in history, mathematics achievement scores in the United States dropped – from 241 in 2020 to 234 in 2022. As new research rolls in, the stark realities of the effects of COVID-19 on educational attainment are setting in.
A report from the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) shows declines across the board in reading and math scores and a widening inequality gap across various measures such as gender, race, and economic status. Even before the pandemic, the U.S. was falling behind the rest of the world. Compared to 77 other countries, the average U.S. mathematics literacy score ranked 31st, trailing Hungary and just ahead of Belarus.
However, across the U.S., the results are anything but equal. The Northeast, in particular, is a bright spot for U.S. education and dominates the list of highly educated states.
COVID-19 and the Widening Inequality Gap
The NAEP has reported on reading and mathematics achievement of 9-, 13-, and 17- year-olds since the early 1970s. According to the latest data, reading scores dropped five points between 2020 and 2022, the steepest decline since 1990. Perhaps more alarmingly, mathematics scores slumped seven points, the first drop ever recorded.
The research dug deeper into the numbers to study the effects of remote learning on test scores and found several key differences in high-performing students versus low-performing students. High-performing students tend to have greater access to computers and high-speed internet and more support from teachers and parents compared to low-performers.
Many of these attributes strongly correlate to income, race, and family status, and the research shows that the effects of COVID-19 and remote learning serve to widen the inequality gap.
Falling Behind International Peers
According to data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), U.S. students are falling further behind their peers in other countries. Since 2003, the U.S. average mathematics literacy score has not changed significantly. However, about one-third of countries in the survey have improved their scores over the same period, causing the U.S. to slip in the rankings while countries like China, Russia, and Portugal surge ahead.
In addition, the PISA survey shows significant disparities in achievement based on race and ethnicity. While the average score across the U.S. was 478, Blacks and Hispanics fell behind, scoring 419 and 452, respectively, while Whites and Asians came in above average.
The Most and Least Highly Educated States in the U.S.
While the U.S. as a whole struggles to achieve higher standards of education, some states do better than others. Analysts from Venture Smarter analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau and determined the most highly educated states. The states were ranked by the percentage of their population that holds a bachelor's degree or higher. While the national average is 35%, individual states ranged from 24% to as high as 63%.
The District of Columbia is the region with the highest percentage of the population obtaining at least a bachelor's degree, 63%. As the hub of government, research, and think tanks, D.C. has long led the country in educational attainment.
Home to world-renowned colleges like Harvard and MIT, it is no surprise that Massachusetts ranks right behind D.C. on the list. The state offers quality education from the beginning to the highest levels, which is why almost half of its population, 46.6%, have at least a bachelor's degree.
Colorado ranks third; 44.4% of its residents have a bachelor's degree or higher. Colorado is one of the three non-northeastern states to make it to the top ten, no doubt a result of great work done by the Colorado Initiative for Inclusive Higher Education.
Back in the Northeast, 44.4% of Vermonters hold at least a bachelor's degree, putting the Green Mountain State in fourth place. Vermont boasts several prestigious colleges, including Middlebury College, the University of Vermont, and Bennington College.
New Jersey rounds out the top five most highly educated states. 43.1% of its population boasts a bachelor's degree or higher, and just last year, U.S. News & World Report ranked New Jersey as the best state for education. Moreover, Education Week named New Jersey's public school system the best in America in 2019 and 2020.
Maryland ranks sixth on the list. 42.5% of Maryland residents have earned at least a bachelor's degree. The state offers various choices regarding higher education. Although there are colleges throughout the state, most are located in the Baltimore metropolitan area, while Annapolis is home to The United States Naval Academy.
In seventh place is Connecticut, where 42.1% of the residents hold a bachelor's degree or higher. Among many other institutions, Yale University and the University of Connecticut, the nation's leading public research university, provide one of the main reasons behind the state's high ranking.
The southeastern state of Virginia ranks eighth, with 41.8% of its population having at least a bachelor's degree. Some well-known colleges within state lines include James Madison University, the University of Richmond, and the University of Virginia, often confused as a part of the Ivy League due to their rich history of academic excellence.
Next on the list is New Hampshire — 40.2% of New Hampshirites have at least a bachelor's degree. U.S. News and Report ranks New Hampshire as one of the best states for K-12 education, the basis of every student's academic success. The state also offers a variety of schooling options, ensuring that every student is afforded the best conditions for their education.
New York sits in tenth place, with 39.9% of its population holding at least a bachelor's degree. Two of the largest public university systems in the U.S. are in New York, and over 130 degree-granting institutions are within the state, more than in any other state. This ensures a variety of higher-education choices, from large research universities to small specialized institutions.
On the other side of the coin, the states with the lowest percentage of bachelor's degrees are West Virginia at 24.1%, Mississippi at 24.8%, and Arkansas at 25.3%.
The complete list shows the rankings of every state by percentage of the population with a bachelor's degree:
- District of Columbia – 63%
- Massachusetts – 46.6%
- Colorado – 44.4%
- Vermont – 44.4%
- New Jersey – 43.1%
- Maryland – 42.5%
- Connecticut – 42.1%
- Virginia – 41.8%
- New Hampshire – 40.2%
- New York – 39.9%
- Washington – 39%
- Minnesota – 38.9%
- Illinois – 37.1%
- Utah – 36.8%
- Rhode Island – 36.5%
- Oregon – 36.3%
- California – 36.2%
- Maine – 36%
- Delaware – 35.6%
- Kansas – 35.4%
- Hawaii – 35.3%
- North Carolina – 34.9%
- Montana – 34.8%
- Georgia – 34.6%
- Pennsylvania – 34.5%
- Nebraska – 34.4%
- Florida – 33.2%
- Texas – 33.1%
- Alaska – 32.8%
- Wisconsin – 32.5%
- Arizona – 32.4%
- North Dakota – 31.7%
- South Dakota – 31.7%
- Missouri – 31.7%
- Michigan – 31.7%
- South Carolina – 31.5%
- Idaho – 30.7%
- Ohio – 30.7%
- Iowa – 30.5%
- Tennessee – 30.5%
- New Mexico – 30.1%
- Wyoming – 29.2%
- Indiana – 28.9%
- Oklahoma – 27.9%
- Nevada – 27.6%
- Alabama – 27.4%
- Kentucky – 27%
- Louisiana – 26.4%
- Arkansas – 25.3%
- Mississippi – 24.8%
- West Virginia – 24.1%
Can States Close the Education Gap?
The nation did its best during the pandemic to provide equal education to all, but understandably gaps emerged. Now schools furiously work to make up for lost time. A By focusing on wise policymaking and investments in education, states can hopefully remove or at least reduce educational inequalities.
Promoting a good education is about more than just beating other states or countries in test scores. Higher educational achievement is closely linked to economic success. It can lead to higher-paying jobs, more innovation, and the chance to create a better world for ourselves and our children.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrew is the founder of Wealthy Nickel where he writes about all things personal finance. He has a passion for helping people pursue financial freedom through saving money, making money, and building wealth. Andrew documents his family’s journey to financial independence through side hustles while raising 2 kids on a single income