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The Dumbest States in America

Is Your State Smarter than A Fifth Grader


Unless IQ tests become mandatory at every workplace in America, it will probably not be possible to determine the exact intelligence of people in every state. And even then, many would argue that IQ tests are a poor measurement of smarts to begin with. So where does that leave us?

I was pretty eager to just go “Jay-walking” across the country and quiz strangers about current events and geometry. But in lieu of that, we decided to compile two excellent education reports from recent years to give you a fuller picture of America’s education system and the intelligence of the adults it produces.

The first was a comprehensive study from 2007 released by Morgan Quitno Press, an independent research company that specializes in state data. They took into account several key educational factors such as math and reading proficiency at various grade levels, high school dropout rates, class size and the average ratio of students to teachers. (You can read more of their methodology here.)  The second report we used was a state-by-state breakdown of SAT scores compiled by the College Board.

We’ll start with the “smartest” states and then move on to the “dumbest“ states.  But we put those words in quotes because what we’re really talking about is which states produce the best educated citizens.

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10th Smartest State: Virginia


Virginia is no stranger to praise from educators. In 2008, one Virginia high school topped U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best high schools in America. That same year, the American Federation of Teachers declared that Virginia had the best education standards in the country.

The state ranked 6th in Morgan Quitno’s study, but despite good standards of education, graduating seniors received lackluster marks on their SATs. The average score was just 1521 (out of 2400). So that’s one area the state should look to improve in.

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9th Smartest State: Minnesota


Minnesota takes education seriously, producing quality students. The average graduating senior in Minnesota got a 1782 on their SATs, the third highest nationwide. Yet, there are still some flaws in the state’s education system. One big criticism is that the state does not compensate its teachers well enough, and the state is pretty average when it comes to education funding in general.

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8th Smartest State: Nebraska


Nebraskans ranked in the top 10 SAT scores with an average of 1753, and ranked 11th overall according to Morgan Quitno’s report of the smartest states. Other surveys have highlighted the state’s excellent teaching staff and generous financing for education, though there are criticisms that the education system has not been well managed.

Recently, the governor of Nebraska announced that he wanted to make some significant changes to the education system, including overhauling the school year schedule and even adding a virtual high school to provide students better access to classes.

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7th Smartest State: New Jersey


Apparently, some kids in New Jersey spend more time on the Jersey Shore and less time hitting the books. Despite ranking in the top 5 on Morgan Quitno’s report of the smartest states, New Jersey students did mediocre on the SATs, averaging a score of 1505. In fact, the performance of high school students  has been  less than stellar on statewide tests, but there are signs of improvement in middle schools and elementary schools. Yet, New Jersey does have several schools that rank in the top 100 nationwide, according to U.S. News and World Report. On top of this, school budgets increased last year and the state has received nearly a billion dollars worth of stimulus money to boost education further.

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6th Smartest State: Montana


Students in this state scored an average of 1602 on their SAT’s, which ranked 23rd nationwide. Not overwhelmingly good or bad, but the students of Montana distinguish themselves in other ways. According to one survey, 92% of the people in Montana have at least a high school diploma, which is the third most nationwide.

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5th Smartest State: Connecticut


Connecticut ranked third on Morgan Quinto’s education index, thanks in part to the high percentage of students that have above average proficiency in math and writing. While the average student scored just a 1534 on the SAT’s, they were still more likely to go on to higher education that in almost any other state. More than a third completed a bachelor’s degree.

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4th Smartest State: Iowa


We’re especially glad to hear that Iowa is on the smarter side since they effectively function as a deciding state for elections (they are the first to vote in the primaries). As it turns out, Iowans know how to do their homework. The average SAT score in Iowa was 1813, making it the highest in the nation. On top of that, nearly 90 percent of the people in Iowa have a high school diploma or higher. Moral of the story: don’t get into a battle of wits with an Iowan. They will probably best you.

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3rd Smartest State: Massachusetts


Massachusetts may have problems with its health care system, but education there is phenomenal. The state ranks at or near the top in terms of the percentage of elementary and middle school students who are above proficiency in reading and writing, as well as the number of people who received bachelors degrees (37.4%). The only kink in their education is that students seem to choke a bit on the SATs. The average score was just 1547, putting the state in the bottom half of the nation.

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2nd Smartest State: Wisconsin


It ranked in the top 5 of our Drunkest States list, but apparently the people of Wisconsin haven’t killed off all their brain cells (yet). Students in this state scored an average of 1784 on the SAT’s, the second highest nationwide after Iowa. The state also ranked in the top ten according to Morgan Quitno’s study. The state has a high percentage of students who are proficient in math and reading, according to the National Center for Education, and the state is generous in funding its education system. The one elephant in the classroom for Wisconsin is that they are slow to close the achievement gap that African Americans face in schools.

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The Smartest State: Vermont


Vermont was declared the smartest state by Morgan Quitno thanks to several factors. “A high percentage of the state’s students are proficient in reading and math. In addition, class sizes are small and the number of teachers per student is among the lowest in the nation,” the firm said in a press release. The average SAT scores in this state are not overwhelmingly great (just 1542), but Vermont makes up for it with strong classrooms that foster good students who are dedicated to continuing their education beyond high school. The National Center for Education reports that 91 percent of people in Vermont have a high school diploma or higher, and nearly a third have completed a bachelor’s degree.

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10th Dumbest State: New Mexico


The people of New Mexico have their work cut out of for them. Nearly 20 percent of the population never graduated high school and those in the school system scored lower than average in math and reading proficiency. According to one study in 2005, only 42 percent of fourth graders achieved a basic level of reading proficiency. The state has thrown a decent amount of money into its schooling system, but it doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact. Graduating seniors in this state have been performing better on the SATs in recent years, averaging a score of 1633 last year. This, at least, has been cause for some celebration in the state.

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9th Dumbest State: Louisiana


Just 79 percent of students in Louisiana graduate from high school, making it the second worst state in this category after Texas. This is especially unfortunate, because those who do decide to finish high school usually perform better than average on their SATs. The average score for graduating seniors in Louisiana was 1676, the 18th highest in the United States. Other recent surveys have praised Louisiana for the quality of its teachers but bashed the state for school funding and student achievement. The state is currently looking to overhaul its education system by focusing on charter schools.

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8th Dumbest State: Alabama


Alabama ranked in the bottom ten on Morgan Quitno’s list of smart states largely because of the students low proficiency in math and reading and their high dropout rate. Just 82 percent of the population graduated high school. In fact, studies have shown that Alabama’s poor education is responsible for more than half of the state’s income gap compared to the rest of the nation. According to the National Center for Education, the state also was ranked the worst in one other classic sign of smarts. They have the lowest rate of library visits per capita of any state.

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7th Dumbest State: Mississippi


Whatever you might say about Mississippi, it is definitely a state of superlative achievements. It nabbed the top spot on our list of the most religious states, and in the past, has ranked as the most unhealthy state, too. And now, it’s near the top of the list of “dumbest” states. We’re not saying any of these are linked together, but it certainly paints an interesting picture of life in this state.

To their credit, the people of Mississippi do perform well on the SATs, averaging a score of 1680. However, this is offset by the fact that fewer people here actually graduate from high school than in most of the nation (83 percent) and even fewer pursue a college education. Less than 20 percent of Mississippians have completed a bachelor’s degree, the third worst nationwide. Several reports have argued that the key to repairing Mississippi’s education system is to target the earlier grades where students are lagging behind the rest of the nation.

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6th Dumbest State: Georgia


Graduating seniors in Georgia averaged a 1460 on the SATs, placing it in the bottom five nationwide. Approximately 15 percent of the people in the state never graduated from high school, and according to one study in 2008, fewer than half of all students in Atlanta graduated from high school on time. One recent review of state-by-state efforts to reform their education systems did show signs of hope for Georgia, specifically in terms of the quality of its teachers and the level of accountability in the system. However, the state still received terrible marks for the achievements of K-12 students and for school funding.

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5th Dumbest State: Alaska


Alaska ranked at or near the bottom nationwide for the number of bachelors, doctors and masters degrees awarded, and in the bottom half of the nation in SAT performance, with average score of 1528. Some might argue that there isn’t as much of a need for PhDs in a state like Alaska where more people work with their hands. But even putting aside college degrees, education in Alaska lags behind many other states. Alaska has been plagued with high dropout rates and inadequate schooling in rural areas.

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4th Dumbest State: Hawaii


One of their citizens may be the president of the United States,  but Hawaii is still lagging behind much of the nation in education. A persistent problem here is that the state makes frequent cuts to the school budgets, scrapping sports programs and making it harder for schools to function effectively. This culminated in the news last year that Hawaii would shift to a 4-day school week to cut costs. While it sounds like a student’s dream (I’m definitely pretty jealous), it’s a symptom of a larger problem. And all this cost cutting has clearly had a negative impact on students. Graduating seniors in Hawaii have scored an average of 1450 on their SATs, the second worst in the nation behind Maine.

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3rd Dumbest State: California


California has one of the worst dropout rates in the country, with nearly 20 percent of the population failing to graduate from high school. In recent years, the state’s approach to fixing this was to artificially inflate the numbers. Besides this, graduating seniors in California scored an average of 1511 on the SATs, placing it in the bottom third of the nation. It was probably a bad sign when, in 2008, it was considered a great accomplishment that the state would work towards getting eighth graders to learn algebra, a common requirement in other states. One of the main bright spots for California was its “gold standard” for higher education, where students would have access to the excellent state colleges at a lower tuition rate. But this too has suffered in recent months.

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2nd Dumbest State: Arizona


It’s strange that both presidential candidates should come from states that are in the bottom five on this list. Perhaps education should have been a much bigger issue in the last election.

Arizona was ranked as the worst state according to Morgan Quitno’s list. Students received dismal scores on their math and reading proficiency tests in middle school and just 84% of the population has graduated from high school. A recent survey this year claimed that Arizona’s K12 education is the fifth worst in the nation. Another unrelated survey found that the vast majority of high school students in Arizona (96.5%) would be unable to pass a basic citizenship test if they needed to. Too dumb to be American? That’s a problem.

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The Dumbest State: Nevada


Poor Nevada. Not only are they one of the unhappiest states in the U.S., but they also have a terrible education system. According to one recent survey, Nevada had the worst public school system in the country, excluding D.C. (lucky for them, not a state and thus not ranked here). On top of this, fewer than 20 percent of Nevadans have completed a bachelor’s degree and only 86 percent have graduated high school. The average SAT score in this state was a 1485, which was the 11th worst nationwide.

In 2008, the Nevada Policy Research Institute argued that the problem was not the amount of money spent on education, but rather where that money went. “By the time a child takes the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam, Nevada has spent more than $40,000 on that child's education,” the institute wrote. Unfortunately, Nevada is still struggling to get it right. The governor recently announced plans for cuts in education spending.

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