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Nation Shows Scant Progress in Assuring Bright Prospects for All Students

By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — January 21, 2020 6 min read
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The nation faces persistent challenges amid marginal progress when it comes to assuring that school systems and socioeconomic factors provide all children with bright prospects over the course of a lifetime, the latest analysis of federal data by the EdWeek Research Center shows.

Based on 13 cradle-to-career indicators that make up Education Week’s annual Chance-for-Success Index, the nation receives a grade of C-plus on this year’s tally, with a score of 79.2 out of 100 possible points, up 0.2 points over last year’s result. It’s the 13th straight year of C-level grades when all indicators are factored together.

Massachusetts (91.3) leads the nation, with the only A-minus. It’s followed by five states at B-plus: New Jersey (89.1), Connecticut (88.0), Vermont (87.7), Minnesota (87.5), and New Hampshire (87.1). New Mexico (67.2) is at the bottom of the rankings, with a D-plus.

And consistency is the exception, not the rule: Most states earn higher scores on some measures and lower ratings on others. Roughly half the states finish with grades between C-minus and C-plus.

Unpacking the Box

The 13 indicators that make up the index capture opportunities for children to get off to a good start early in their lives, move smoothly through pre-K to postsecondary education, and ultimately achieve positive educational and workforce outcomes as adults. Results can be broken down to show education-related opportunities in three categories: early foundations, the school years, and adult outcomes.

The early-foundations category includes family income, parental education levels, and other factors that influence whether children start school ready to learn. In the school years category, the index measures school participation and performance, incorporating indicators from preschool to the postsecondary level. Educational attainment, steady employment, and income make up the key benchmarks of adult success.

Scores on the index reflect the research center’s analysis of the most recent available federal data. These include 2018 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the 2019 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the 2016-17 adjusted cohort graduation rates published by the U.S. Department of Education.

The index uses a best-in-class scoring system in which states are measured against the top state on each metric. The nation’s leader on an indicator earns 100 points with all other states receiving points based on their distance from the top-scoring state. Each state’s point totals across all the indicators are averaged and converted into A-F letter grades on a 100-point scale.

Here are five key takeaways from this year’s analysis:

1. Not an A in sight on overall scores.

Every state has room to improve on the index. No state earns an A grade, overall. Although Massachusetts leads the nation with an A-minus, it still ranks 45th for steady employment and 42nd for linguistic integration, defined as the percent of dependent children whose parents are fluent English speakers, a factor in the early-foundations category.

The top-scoring states post relatively strong results in all three categories of the index, but most are substantially weaker on at least one component than on the other two. For instance, New Jersey ranks second for the school years and fifth for adult outcomes but 17th in early foundations. Vermont, which finishes second in early foundations and fourth in the school years, falls to 13th for adult outcomes. There isn’t a single state that ranks in the top five for all the categories.

2. Young children generally start off with fairly strong foundations. Opportunities decline as they progress through the educational pipeline.

The nation earns its best grade in the early-foundations category where it posts a B (83.0). It gets a C-plus for both the school years (77.6) and adult outcomes (77.2). Sixteen states garner grades of A or A-minus for building blocks in early life. By contrast, just two states—Massachusetts and New Jersey—earn A or A-minus grades for pre-K through postsecondary education. The District of Columbia—where government-related jobs often draw highly educated workers from across the nation—posts the only A for opportunities in adulthood.

3. The District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee have made the biggest opportunity gains since 2008. Delaware and Maryland have lost the most ground.

Changes on the index over time can reflect both academic and socioeconomic trends. The District of Columbia made the largest strides when comparing 2020 results with 2008’s, the year the index’s current scoring system made its debut. Its score increased by 9.3 points, boosting its letter grade from a C to a B. As a result, the District’s ranking climbed from 33rd to seventh, nationally. Those gains were propelled by improvements in family income, parent education, and 4th grade reading and 8th grade math NAEP scores.

Mississippi gained 6.2 points, catapulting its grade from a D-plus in 2008 to a C in 2020. Like the District of Columbia, the state made progress on test scores and the early supports that can contribute to academic success. It made key advances in family income, parental education levels, parental employment, 4th grade reading, and 8th grade math.

Tennessee and Louisiana both elevated their overall scores by more than 3 points over this time span. They similarly made gains in parental education and employment, along with 4th grade reading and 8th grade math.

By contrast, Delaware’s overall score fell by 4.8 points, with declines in family and personal income, parental education, linguistic integration, kindergarten enrollment, and postsecondary participation. Maryland lost 3.7 points on the index, which can be attributed to falloffs in linguistic integration, preschool enrollment, 8th grade math, and personal income.

4. Geography, income, and opportunity are correlated. But some states buck regional and poverty-based patterns on specific performance indicators.

Residents of Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states tend to have greater chances for academic and economic success than their peers in other regions, particularly the South and Southwest. To visit the four top states on the index (Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Vermont), start in New Jersey and head north on I-95. A trip to the four lowest-rankings states (Louisiana, West Virginia, Nevada, and New Mexico) wouldn’t require traveling any farther north than Nevada.

Although geography and opportunity are closely linked, some states perform better than their neighbors on particular metrics. For instance, several Southern states crack the top tier for preschool enrollment. Louisiana is 8th, while Florida and Mississippi are 10th and 11th, respectively. Nearby states don’t fare as well on that same indicator: Alabama (36th), Texas (39th), North Carolina (40th), Kentucky (42nd), and Tennessee (47th) fall toward the bottom of the rankings.

The lowest-ranked states on the overall index tend to struggle with both poverty and student achievement. New Mexico, for example, finishes last for family income, 4th grade reading, 8th grade math, and high school graduation.

A handful of lower-tier states, though, stand out by diverging from this pattern. Florida ranks 40th for early foundations but 20th in the school years. Its students face early challenges related to poverty (39th in family income) and language barriers (45th in linguistic integration) but rank fairly high (11th) in 4th grade reading. Similarly, Kentucky ranks 40th for family income but 26th for 4th grade reading. Tennessee, which is 46th for family income, reaches 27th for 4th grade reading.

5. The 24 points separating Massachusetts from New Mexico on the index illustrate substantial differences in economic and educational conditions between the top- and bottom-ranked states.

The comprehensive data provide a nuanced picture of just how widely education-related opportunities can vary. Massachusetts finishes in the top 10 in eight of the 13 index indicators, while New Mexico is in the bottom 10 for 11 of the metrics. Similar disparities between other high- and low-performing states also indicate that where a person lives matters.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2020 edition of Education Week as Scant Progress, Persistent Challenges in Assuring Bright Prospects for All

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