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Data: Are We Preparing Students for a Lifetime of Success?

By Sterling C. Lloyd & Alex Harwin — January 15, 2019 7 min read
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The Education Week Research Center’s Chance-for-Success Index identifies strengths and weaknesses in each state’s education pipeline that—taken together—capture the many factors within and outside of the pre-K-12 education system that contribute to a person’s success throughout a lifetime.

The Index is based on 13 distinct factors gauging education-related opportunities in three broad stages of a person’s life: early foundations, the school years, and adult outcomes.

In the early-foundations category, the index measures factors that provide support to children as they prepare to enter the formal education system, including prekindergarten. These factors include family income, parental education levels, and parents’ English-language fluency.

The metrics in the school years incorporate key markers of pre-K-12 participation and performance, ranging from preschool to postsecondary. Adult outcomes are evaluated based on educational attainment, income, and steady employment.

These latest scores—updated with fresh data since the Quality Counts report issued in September—reflect the 2017 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, adjusted cohort graduation rates from 2015-16 published by the U.S. Department of Education, and the research center’s analysis of 2017 data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The updates mean scores and rankings for some states have shifted slightly from last September’s report.

Point totals are determined by a best-in-class methodology, which compares a state’s results on each indicator with the leading state on that specific metric. The top state receives 100 points. All other jurisdictions earn points based on their distance from the national leader. The point totals are then translated into A-F letter grades reflecting the average of numerical scores on a 100-point scale. The results for the Chance-for-Success Index, reported in this January installment of Quality Counts 2019, make up one-third of the overall state and national grades that will be published in September.

The nation receives a grade of C-plus for Chance for Success this year, with a score of 79.0 out of 100 possible points, up 0.5 points since last year. Nearly half the states (24) finish with grades between C-minus and C-plus.

Massachusetts (91.5) leads the nation, with the only A-minus. It’s followed by four states at B-plus: New Jersey (89.1), New Hampshire (88.8), Connecticut (87.4), and Minnesota (87.0). New Mexico (68.0) is at the bottom of the rankings, with a D-plus.

Results on the index offer an opportunity for educators, policymakers, and residents to zero in on specific insights for their own states. Overall, five key takeaways emerge from the data.

1. Strong K-12 test scores and postsecondary participation make Massachusetts the pound-for-pound champion in the Chance-for-Success category.

The contest isn’t all that close.

Massachusetts ranks in the top 10 for eight of the index’s 13 indicators. To be sure, it has some socioeconomic advantages based on long-standing educational and financial patterns. For instance, it ranks third in family income and fourth in parental education levels. More than 6 in 10 children in the state have a parent with a postsecondary degree, compared with slightly more than half of children nationwide. Those building blocks help the state’s children get off to a strong start.

But it is strong results within the formal pre-K-12 education system that push the state past its nearest competitors.

Which indicators give Massachusetts an edge on other high-ranking states? Drill down into a comparison with the other states in the overall Chance-for-Success top five (New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Minnesota) and it’s apparent that reading and math scores are the key to keeping Massachusetts king of the hill.

It ranks first in the nation for both the percent of 4th graders proficient in reading and the percent of 8th graders proficient in math on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress. It’s the only state in the nation in which a majority (50.8 percent) of 4th graders are proficient in reading. Only 39.1 percent of Minnesota’s 4th graders, for instance, score at that level. Similarly, nearly half (49.7 percent) of 8th graders in Massachusetts are proficient in math, compared with just 36.2 percent in Connecticut.

Postsecondary participation rates also separate Massachusetts from other states that score high on the index. It ranks second in the nation with 72.1 percent of its 18- to 24-year-olds either enrolled in a postsecondary program or already earning a degree. In New Hampshire, by contrast, just 60.1 percent of young adults are participating in postsecondary education, placing the state 12th in the nation in that category.

2. The region where you live makes a difference.

States in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions provide the best opportunities for success. The biggest barriers are found in the South and Southwest.

Regional disparities persist across a range of economic and educational factors that contribute to success. The top-scoring states on the index are commonly located in an East Coast section of the map stretching from Virginia to Maine. Five of the six states with the highest overall scores (Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Virginia) are in that corridor.

States in that area also finish first in the nation on several indicators making up the index. The District of Columbia—considered a state for purposes of Chance for Success—leads the nation in preschool enrollment, postsecondary participation, adult educational attainment, and annual income. Massachusetts is the pacesetter for reading and math test scores. New Hampshire ranks first in family income.

Despite the geographic concentration of strong opportunities in this cluster of states, top scores are not entirely limited to the Atlantic Coast. Minnesota (5th), Iowa (7th), and North Dakota (10th) are Midwestern states in the top 10 overall. Minnesota ranks in the top 10 on seven indicators, posting a second-place finish in both parental-education and 8th grade math. Iowa has the nation’s best high school graduation and parental employment rates, while North Dakota is the national leader in parental education.

At the other end of the spectrum, states in the South and Southwest make up most of the index’s bottom tier. Louisiana, Nevada, and New Mexico are the bottom three states overall. States in these regions also rank last on several specific indicators. Louisiana is last in 8th grade math, while Mississippi finishes at the bottom for annual income. New Mexico holds the last spot in family income and 4th grade reading. Nevada falls to the bottom for parental education levels and postsecondary participation.

3. Across the nation, opportunities haven’t improved much over time.

To evaluate trends over time, 2019 results can be compared with data from 2008, the year the index’s current scoring system was first used. Since that time, the nation’s score hasn’t changed much—it has risen by just 0.6 points from 78.4 in 2008 to 79.0 in 2019. More than half the states (29) improved their scores by less than a point or saw them decline. Scores in 10 states decreased by more than one point. The stagnant scores present a challenge to policymakers and signal that new strategies for boosting opportunity are needed.

Despite a relatively static picture of opportunity growth overall, the nation has made strides on certain metrics. For instance, the percent of children with at least one parent holding a postsecondary credential increased by 7.5 points.

4. Opportunities improved the most in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. They declined the most in Vermont and Maryland.

Some states did boost opportunity from 2008 to 2019. The District of Columbia made the strongest gains, increasing its score by 6.3 points. That improvement was propelled by the nation’s largest strides in 4th grade reading (14.9 points) and 8th grade math (12.9 points). As a result, the District’s overall index ranking climbed from 33rd in 2008 to 15th in 2019. Mississippi (4.9 points) and Louisiana (3.1 points) also improved their scores by more than three points. Mississippi made strong gains in parental education levels, 4th grade reading, and 8th grade math. Louisiana’s biggest upticks were in employment for parents and other adults, along with parental education.

By contrast, overall index scores in Vermont (-4.6) and Maryland (-3.3) fell by more than three points. Both of those states declined in family income, the language proficiency of parents, and 8th grade math. Vermont’s kindergarten enrollment also slid.

5. The nation earns a lower score for pre-K-12 education than for indicators capturing early childhood and adult outcomes.

As policymakers seek to spur opportunity, improvement in the pre-K-12 education system remains a key goal. The nation receives a score of 76.7 (C-plus) for the school years, compared with a point total of 82.8 (B) for educational foundations in early childhood, and 78.3 (C-plus) for markers of adult success. A handful of states post especially good results in the school years. Massachusetts earns an A and New Jersey an A-minus. Connecticut gets the only B-plus. But seven states receive marks of D-plus or D for school performance. Future gains on the index may depend on pinpointing policies and instructional strategies that boost each student’s chance for success.

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