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Are Today’s Students Set Up for Success? Nation Earns B-Minus in Latest EdWeek Index

But challenges loom large for families pressed by pandemic
By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — January 19, 2021 7 min read
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The nation has made notable gains over the past decade on a wide-ranging basket of academic and socioeconomic factors that make up Education Week’s Chance-for-Success Index, earning it the first B-minus grade on the index in its current form since 2008.

But it’s far too early to tell whether that progress—which largely reflects 2019 federal data—can withstand the COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption of schooling nationwide and its devastating economic impact on families and communities.

First the good news: The nation earns a score of 79.5 out of 100 possible points and a B-minus letter grade on Education Week’s annual Chance-for-Success Index, which captures 13 cradle-to-career indicators that play into the chances for successful outcomes over a person’s lifetime, based on the most recent data available on a national basis. The current scoring system debuted in 2008.

Massachusetts (91.6) and New Jersey (89.6) post the nation’s highest scores and earn A-minus grades. Three other perennial leaders round out the top five: New Hampshire (87.9), Connecticut (87.5), and Minnesota (87.4). Those states receive B-plus grades, as does the District of Columbia, which reaches that mark for the first time. New Mexico (69.0) finishes at the bottom of the rankings, with the only D-plus.

But every state has substantial room for improvement on some aspect of the index. No state earns an A, and roughly half the states post mediocre grades between C-minus and C-plus.

And the prospects headed forward appear rocky, at least in the near term. As the pandemic shakes the nation’s economy, job losses and pay cuts may continue to put downward pressure on the index’s family income and parental employment variables.

Meanwhile, the shift to remote learning prompted by the pandemic has also caused widespread concern about learning loss for the nation’s K-12 and college students. Lack of access to adequate technology and disruption of young adults’ plans for postsecondary enrollment are just two of many barriers that may ultimately hinder academic participation and performance.

As a result of all these factors, educators and policymakers will have to contend with budget constraints and unfamiliar instructional models as they work to ensure that residents of their states have a solid chance for success.

Analysis uses a cradle-to-career lens

The index is designed to measure opportunities for residents of each state during three key stages of their lifetimes. Of the 13 indicators, four capture building blocks that support the development of young children. This “early foundations” category measures family income, parental education levels, parental employment, and the share of children whose parents are fluent in English.

The index’s “school years” category gauges student participation and performance in formal education from preschool to postsecondary. It includes six metrics: preschool and kindergarten enrollment, 4th grade reading test scores, results on 8th grade math exams, high school graduation rates, and postsecondary participation.

Ultimately, the education system is intended to produce graduates who can earn a living and be productive adults. But to make good on an education, students will benefit from completing a postsecondary degree and joining a workforce in which there are good opportunities for employment and earnings. The “adult outcomes” section of the index offers perspective on the availability of such opportunities. It measures adult educational attainment, annual income, and steady employment.

Results on the index reflect the EdWeek Research Center’s analysis of the most recent federal data. Reading and math test scores are taken from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. The index also incorporates 2017-18 adjusted cohort graduation rates published by the U.S. Department of Education. All other metrics rely on 2019 information from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. More details on data sources and methodology are available in the Sources and Notes section of the report.

Here are key takeaways from this year’s analysis:

1. The nation’s climb to a milestone with its first B-minus grade reflects gradual gains over time.

The nation’s score increased from 78.4 on the 2008 Chance-for-Success Index to 79.5 in 2021. The national score declined in the years following the Great Recession of 2008 as most states faced the lingering effects of that severe economic downturn. But the nation has improved slightly on the index every year since 2018. The 0.3 point increase in its score since last year’s report boosted its letter grade to B-minus for the first time.

Across the index, the nation’s strongest improvements since the 2008 report are in parental education and employment levels. The share of children with at least one parent with a postsecondary degree increased from 43.3 percent in 2008 to 52.3 percent in the 2021 report. The percent of children with at least one parent working full time and year-round jumped from 71.8 to 79.0.

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2. The nation’s long-term gains have been driven largely by progress in the South.

The District of Columbia leads the nation in gains since the 2008 report. Its score increased from 76.4 in 2008 to 86.8 this year. Its letter grade improved from a C to a B-plus in that time. It made gains in family income, parent education, parental employment, kindergarten enrollment, 4th grade reading, and 8th grade math.

Three Southern states round out the top four in gains during this period: Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Each state saw gains of at least four points. All three states made gains in parental education and employment levels, as well as 4th grade reading and 8th grade math test scores. Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas are other Southern states that also saw their scores improve by more than a point.

By contrast, Maryland and Vermont are the only states to decline by more than three points over that period. Both saw their grades drop from a B-plus to a B. Maryland lost ground in family and adult income, the percent of children whose parents are fluent English-speakers, kindergarten enrollment, and 8th grade math. Vermont saw its largest declines in the percent of children whose parents are fluent English-speakers, kindergarten enrollment, and 4th grade reading.

From a shorter-term perspective, Delaware and Rhode Island made the most improvement between the 2020 report and this year’s and are the only states to gain more than two points since last year. On the other hand, Vermont was the only state to decline by two points.

3. The striking disparities between the top- and bottom-ranked states on specific indicators shine a light on inequality.

The 22.6 points that separate Massachusetts and New Mexico, the highest- and lowest-scoring states on the index, illustrate the substantial differences in overall opportunities across states.

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Drilling down to identify the top- and bottom-ranked states on specific graded categories and indicators reveals similar disparities in key stages of the education pipeline. Children in New Hampshire have the strongest early foundations to prepare for school success while those in New Mexico have the weakest. Those states’ scores in that category differ by 22.1 points.

For instance, 77.7 percent of children in New Hampshire live in families with incomes at least 200 percent of the poverty level compared with just 51.9 percent in New Mexico, 49.0 percent in Arkansas, and 48.5 percent in Mississippi.

In the school years indicators, Massachusetts outpaces New Mexico by 28.7 points. Scores on 8th grade NAEP math tests highlight the disparities. In Massachusetts, 47.4 percent of 8th graders are proficient in math but only 20.7 reach that level in New Mexico.

Strong outcomes for adults in the District of Columbia result in an A grade and a score of 99.7 in that category. By contrast, Mississippi gets a D, with a score of 66.2. Roughly two-thirds of the District’s adults between the ages of 25 and 64 have a two- or four-year postsecondary degree. In West Virginia, only about 3 in 10 adults have that level of educational attainment.

The additional degrees translate into economic returns for the residents of the District where 7 in 10 adults earn incomes at or above the national median. Only 35.5 percent of adults have incomes at that level in Mississippi.

4. Across the indicators, state performance is characterized by peaks and valleys.

Many states post uneven results, leading in at least one area but lagging in another. In all, 17 states rank in the top 10 for at least one broad stage of the educational pipeline: early foundations, the school years, or adult outcomes.

At the same time, 16 states rank in the bottom 10 in at least one of those categories. Nearly every state (42) earns a top 10 ranking for at least one of the index’s 13 specific indicators. Most states (35) also land in the bottom 10 for at least one of those metrics. And while six different states rank first in the nation on at least one of the 13 metrics, nine states finish last on an indicator.

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Xinchun Chen, Contributor and Yukiko Furuya contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Nation Notches Progress on Chance-for-Success Index

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