Tennessee and Georgia each moved up in a national ranking of overall education quality, with Tennessee placing 21st and Georgia seventh.
But those figures came in well above other measures of statewide student success such as the ACT college entrance exam and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test that compares states' performance on math and reading.
On Thursday, the Education Research Center released its 2012 Quality Counts report, a comprehensive assessment of the nation's public education system that ranks states by examining several areas of education policy and student performance. The report is produced by Education Week, a national education newspaper published by Editorial Projects in Education, a nonprofit organization based in Bethesda, Md.
In addition to providing a state-by-state analysis, this year's report looks at how well states use information from national leaders and whether they look to countries leading in education progress.
Tennessee students ranked second to last on the ACT in 2011. Tennessee is one of eight states that requires the ACT for all students.
In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has results are culled from four separate tested areas, Tennessee scored in the bottom 10 of 50 states in all four areas.
In Georgia, students placed between 29th and 43rd on tested areas of the assessment.
Tim Haywood, a research associate who worked on the study, said it isn't just based on student achievement, though that is a piece of it. Three indicators look at educational outputs - school finance, K-12 achievement and a student's chance of success, he said. The other indicators look at state policy, such as standards and assessments, policies regarding the teaching profession and a state's alignment in policy and curriculum.
"We track state policies that experts believe will lead to future improvement," Haywood said. "The indicators that we look at are kind of a mix of how states are currently doing and what they're setting themselves up to do - how well they're going to do in the future based on current policy."
Georgia scored at or above average in all categories, while Tennessee showed mixed results.
Both states ranked low in the school finance analysis. Tennessee received a D+, while Georgia received a C. Using figures adjusted for regional cost differences, the ranking says Tennessee spends $8,695 per public school student, while Georgia spends $9,827 per pupil. The national average is $11,665, the study said.
• Most states look to other nations to better inform their education reforms, policies and programs.
• Math and science in the U.S. are the subject areas most influenced by international standards and examples.
• Effects of the economic downturn linger in American education, a year and a half after the official end of the recession.
• Since the recession, teacher pay has risen, relative to the earnings of other workers.
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
See state-by-state results to the 2012 Quality Counts report at www.edweek.org.
Because Georgia's other scores all are so high, state officials said the results show the state is able to do more with less.
"I don't know any other way to take that than to say we're able to do things well, getting things to the classroom level, without spending as much," said Matt Cardoza, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.
In the ranking on this year's report that looks at the teaching profession, Tennessee ranked ninth and Georgia ranked 10th.
"I think it's wonderful. I'm not at all surprised," said Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association.
Hughes said Tennessee and Hamilton County have been in the lead nationally with improving teacher quality for many years.
The study found that the national pay gap between teachers and other comparable workers has narrowed in the past several years, and it estimates that teachers earn about 94 cents for every dollar earned in similar occupations.
The study puts the median salary for U.S. public school teachers at $49,974, compared to $52,972 for comparable workers, a list that includes fields such as accounting, nursing, human resources and clergy.
But Hughes said she believes the national average isn't indicative of Tennessee's teacher salaries.
"Nationally, Tennessee doesn't score too well on how we pay our teachers," she said.
The report also showed that Tennessee and Georgia are among 29 states that use information and data from other nations when making comparisons and policy decisions. That's a step education and business officials said is increasingly important.
At a Washington, D.C., event where Thursday's report was released, several education leaders called on the U.S. to improve its education system in order to remain globally competitive.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a national nonprofit policy group, said American educators need to stop ignoring the methods and results of nations such as Finland that out-perform the U.S. in student achievement.
"They really believe the experience of these other countries is irrelevant," Tucker said in a policy roundtable discussion streamed online. "We have to get beyond that. These folks are eating our lunch."
The U.S. needs a centralized institution that can manage the education system, he said, rather than many governmental agencies that have various responsibilities and regulatory authority.
"It's not that the United States has a bad system. We have no system," he said. "We basically keep making minor changes in an institutional picture that's 100 years out of date."
Mary Jean Gallagher, deputy assistant minister in Canada's Ontario Ministry of Education, said such improvement in the United States isn't only necessary for this country's future.
"As the mouse, Canada sleeps with the elephant, the U.S.," she said. "We really need you to get it right, folks."