U.S. News' High Idaho Education Marks Aren't the Whole Story 

Stakeholders and pundits latch on to claims of Idaho students' college preparedness

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On July 12, U.S. News & World Report released a list of states ranked by how well they prepare their students for college based on ACT and SAT scores of high school students. Idaho ranked fifth in the nation in that report: In the Gem State, 63 percent of students were prepared for writing-related college courses, 36 percent met benchmarks for college math courses and 55.2 percent were deemed college-ready overall.

The list was touted by the Idaho State Board of Education on July 13. In a press release, SBE President Dr. Linda Clark attributed much of the success of Idaho students to teachers who "are working hard to prepare our high school students for the next step," adding, "it is great to see those efforts and the results recognized." In the same release, the SBE noted that Idaho is one of a handful of states where taking the SAT or ACT is a high school graduation requirement.

The report has become the focal point in a debate about whether the State of Idaho adequately prepares high school students for higher education and the workforce. It's one data point among many, however, and not all of those indicators point to success.

Education in Idaho has not garnered positive headlines in recent years. Deep budget cuts during the Great Recession, followed by the Idaho Education Network scandal and, most recently, fights over the role of teaching climate change in state education standards have cast a pall, but the latest ranking offers a glimmer of hope for some stakeholders. It also indicates, according to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra, something essential about Idaho's public education system.

"This is great news, affirming our belief that Idaho schools are doing a good job of preparing students for post-high school success, even as compared to most other states," she wrote in a press release.

Kevin Richert of Idaho Ed News, which is funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, did the legwork in his own analysis of Idaho's ranking: The Gem State's graduation rate is 40th in the nation, its pre-kindergarten enrollment is 45th in the nation, and its four-year college graduation rate is down in the dumps at 49th in the nation.

According to a number of U.S. News reports, Idaho comes in at 25th for K-12, 33rd for higher education and 30th for education overall.

Perhaps more damning is the Albertson Foundation's D grade for the Gem State, which it ranked 47th in the nation based on K-12 achievement, the "chance for success," and school finances. In that report, based on Education Week Research Center Data for 2017, 48 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in postsecondary education, or already had a degree, but that percentage dropped to 35.9 for 25- to 64-year-olds who had obtained postsecondary degrees.

Idaho's latest ranking took on a political dimension soon after it was released, with the Idaho Republican Party tweeting on July 13 that it was "More great news to be ignored by down-on-Idaho/ 'scroll-down state' Democrats."

Not everyone on the right side of the aisle, however, cheered Idaho's fifth-place finish. In his weekly op-ed, Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation observed that approximately a quarter of Idaho college students must play catch-up with their better-prepared peers by taking remedial classes, and though the Idaho State Board of Education cast the new ranking as an improvement rather than an achievement, "no one should confuse a top-10 ranking in this case with excellence in education."

"Parents, students and competent teachers deserve better than a public education system that celebrates mediocrity," he wrote.

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