Minnesota may rank in Top 5 best states overall, but its education system doesn’t

The 2023 U.S. News & World Report “Best States Rankings” study has identified Minnesota as the number 5 best state in the country. The overall ranking factors in crime & corrections, economy, education, fiscal stability, health care, infrastructure, natural environment, and opportunity.

But as my colleague Martha Njolomole laid out here, “a deep dive into the details suggests that the reality” of the state “is much less rosy” than the overall ranking depicts. And that is particularly true in the education category.

While I have written before how education rankings such as these should be taken with a grain of salt — even MinnPost has questioned the state’s high rankings in previous years — I think it’s telling to compare the state’s 2017 U.S. News preK-12 education ranking to today’s.


In 2017, U.S. News & World Report ranked Minnesota preK-12 education #8. Today, that ranking has dropped to #22. The preK-12 ranking factors in preschool enrollment, 8th grade academic performance on national reading and math assessments, high school graduation, and college readiness.

Declining academic performance driving drop in ranking

Minnesota 8th-grade student performance on the math and reading National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests has declined over the years, recently dropping to the lowest scores in decades. For rankings, this has dropped Minnesota from #6 for NAEP reading scores in 2017 to #18 today. The state’s NAEP math ranking has dropped from #3 to #8 over the same time period.

Even with the noted drops, these rankings don’t fully capture Minnesota’s performance compared to other states because they “trea[t] states as though they ha[ve] identical students,” ignoring the “substantial variation present in student populations across the states,” writes Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly for the Cato Institute. And as my colleague John Phelan has noted, a state like Minnesota that does well on aggregated scores “might be benefiting from its socioeconomic make up rather than any great achievement by its education system.”

For example, U.S. News ranked Mississippi #46 and #48 for NAEP math and reading scores, but Mississippi’s Hispanic 8th graders outperformed Minnesota’s Hispanic 8th graders in both reading and math, and Mississippi’s black 8th graders outperformed Minnesota’s black 8th graders in reading (and this is with Minnesota’s scoring one point higher from their 2019 average score).

High school graduation rate

Minnesota’s U.S. News ranking for its high school graduation rate has ticked one spot up since 2017, from #32 to #31. While the state graduation rate has gone up over the years, an increase is not necessarily an indication of actual learning. Spring 2022 state assessment results show high school student proficiency in decline despite a higher graduation rate. (In 2013, the legislature removed required minimum test scores for a high school diploma.)

College readiness

College readiness, or the percentage of high school graduates who have met benchmarks in the SAT, the ACT or both, dropped Minnesota from #23 in 2017 to #26 in 2023. Among Minnesota’s high school graduating class of 2022, average English, math and composite ACT scores are the lowest they have been in at least a decade. Even pre-COVID and school closures, 31 percent of Minnesota graduates met zero college readiness benchmarks, according to 2019 ACT Research data.


Two concluding reminders: First, rankings like U.S. News & World Report have their limitations, and they aren’t without their detractors; second, sound policies, not subjective rankings, will make Minnesota one of the “best.” And right now there’s still work to be done before the state has full bragging rights.