Where Does Colorado Rank? Quality Questions about Quality Counts

In recent years we have seen reports from Colorado’s major newspapers – like this one from 2008 in the Rocky Mountain News – reacting to the release of Education Week‘s Quality Counts survey. The survey uses an assortment of measures in school finance, student achievement, accountability and more to come up with state-by-state scores and letter grades for comparison.

Last year, Colorado overall ranked 38th with a low C. This year, Colorado overall ranks 37th with a low C. Maybe that’s why we haven’t seen any news stories yet. But trust me, I’m not complaining about this fact.

Why do I say that? Check out legal scholar and philosopher Stuart Buck’s quick work of deconstructing Quality Counts. First, the humorous:

In fact, the report reminds me of the old joke (I can’t remember who to credit for this) of a beggar sitting on the streets of New York, with a sign reading, “Wars, 2; Legs Lost, 1; Wives Who Left Me, 2; Children, 3; Lost Jobs, 2. TOTAL: 10.” Well, obviously, the number “10″ doesn’t represent ten of anything.

Here’s hoping I don’t see that math problem on a test anytime soon. Specifically, one of Mr. Buck’s issues with Quality Counts is the school finance rankings:

The problem here is that it doesn’t make sense to reward a state with a higher grade just for spending more, in and of itself. Indeed, the “spending” measure ends up getting averaged with the measure for “K-12 Achievement.” This means that, in theory, a state with high spending and low achievement — thus combining incompetence and extravagance — could get an overall score equal to a state with low spending and high achievement. But if a school manages to get high achievement with low spending, this means that, all else equal, that state has a more efficient and productive education system.

Other concerns have been raised by my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow. In his 2006 issue backgrounder Counting the Cash (PDF), he points out the questionable methodology used to push Colorado’s ranking down. A look at the new 2009 Quality Counts (PDF) shows they still have Colorado at 37th in per-pupil spending, but 26th overall in the School Finance category.

That’s kind of funny: Because a straightforward look (PDF) at the numbers from the U.S. Department of Education shows Colorado ranks 26th in total spending at $9,900 per student (2005-06).

In the meantime, I’ll keep waiting for one of those stories in our local media about Quality Counts.