Special Report
Accountability

When It Comes to Setting Students Up for Success, Nation Earns a ‘C’

By Sterling C. Lloyd — September 05, 2018 6 min read
Incoming freshmen at California State University, Northridge, tour campus as part of their orientation before the school year begins. Many of the students at the 40,000-student university in Los Angeles are the first in their families to attend college. Youth college attendance is one of the indicators on the Education Week Research Center’s Chance-for-Success Index.

The Education Week Research Center developed the Chance-for-Success Index to gauge the education-related opportunities available in each state at different stages in a lifetime, from cradle to career. This third installment of Quality Counts 2018 examines the data behind the nation’s C-plus letter grade (a score of 78.5) on the index and sheds additional light on the wide disparities among states that have remained consistent over a decade of research-center analysis.

Many factors—both within and beyond the K-12 education system—can contribute to a person’s success throughout a lifetime, including state and local economic and social conditions. And while formal education is a driving force, key building blocks for success, including family income and education and access to early-childhood resources, start before students enter school. In addition, returns on a high school diploma or postsecondary degree can vary widely by state.

To rate how these factors come together in the case of a particular state, the Chance for Success Index combines 13 distinct indicators that together capture three broad stages of an individual’s life: early foundations, the school years, and adult outcomes.

The metrics in the early-foundations stage examine factors that help children get off to a good start and to enter the P-12 system ready to learn. Reading and math scores, along with high school graduation rates, are standard benchmarks of school performance in the index. Adult educational attainment, employment, and income represent key markers of adult success.

Results are based on the research center’s analysis of 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the 2017 results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and adjusted cohort graduation rates from 2015-16 published by the U.S. Department of Education.

Grades are calculated using a best-in-class approach, which compares a state’s performance on each of the index’s indicators with the top-ranked state on that particular metric. The top state receives 100 points with other states earning points in proportion to their performance as gauged against the national leader. The resulting A-F letter grades reflect the average of numerical scores on a traditional 100-point scale.

In addition, this year’s Chance-for-Success grades, first published in January’s Quality Counts report card, have now been updated based on new reading and math scores from NAEP, which were released by the Education Department in the spring.

Differing Opportunities

A look at the nation as a whole shows consistent standouts Massachusetts and New Hampshire continuing to top the list in this category with grades of A-minus and scores of 91.7 and 90.1, respectively. New Mexico (67.3) and Nevada (68.2) are at the bottom of the rankings with D-plus grades.

Nearly half the states (23) post mediocre grades between C-minus and C-plus. Those states’ results reflect a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Only a handful of states are strong or weak across the board. Massachusetts finishes in the top 10 states in eight of the index’s 13 indicators. New Mexico, by contrast, falls in the bottom 10 states on 11 of the metrics.

Consider the opportunities available in Massachusetts, the leading state on the index. Children typically live in families with adequate incomes and often have well-educated parents. More than 6 in 10 children in the state have a parent with a postsecondary degree, compared with just under half of children in the nation as a whole. And the majority (58 percent) of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds enroll in preschool, compared with just 47.7 percent nationally.

Students in the Bay State are also more likely to be proficient in reading and math, graduate from high school, and enroll in postsecondary education than in most states. As adults, graduates often enter well-educated communities with opportunities for employment and solid pay as a result of the state’s economy. By contrast, residents in Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and other states that rank low on the index are less likely to have such opportunities—making initiatives to boost their communities, economies, and education systems all the more important.

A closer look at each of the three life stages captured by the index can provide insights into states’ results and identify areas for improvement.

Early Foundations: Poverty and other factors in early childhood, such as parental education level, can be barriers to subsequent academic progress in K-12 schooling. The nation earns a B-minus (81.4) for early educational foundations. New Hampshire (98.7), North Dakota (95.7), Minnesota (94.3), and Utah (93.1) post grades of A. New Hampshire ranks first for both family income and parental education levels. New Mexico (71.1) and Nevada (72.3) get the lowest grades at C-minus. New Mexico finishes last in family income and 48th in parental education.

The School Years: Although early educational foundations and workforce opportunities are part of the index, roughly half the indicators examine the school years. When evaluated based on school participation and performance, the nation receives a C-plus (76.6). Massachusetts posts the only A (93.2), followed by New Jersey with the only A-minus (90.8). New Mexico (63.0), Alaska (64.5), and Nevada (65.5) get grades of D, the lowest in the nation. Massachusetts ranks fifth in preschool enrollment and leads the nation in both 4th grade reading and 8th grade math test scores. New Jersey is third for preschool enrollment and second in high school graduation.

Overall State Grades

Catch up on how the nation and states fared on a broad range of K-12 categories, including school finance, as reported in this year’s first installment of Quality Counts, published Jan. 17.

Adult Outcomes: The nation receives a C-plus (78.3) for indicators measuring adult educational attainment and workforce outcomes, such as annual income and steady employment. The District of Columbia—where opportunities to serve in government are often a magnet for highly educated employees from across the nation—gets the only A in the adult-outcomes category, with a score of 99.3. Massachusetts finishes a distant second with the only A-minus, at 89.5.

On the other end of the scale, West Virginia (68.4), Nevada (68.4), Arkansas (69.3), and Mississippi (69.4) receive the lowest scores and grades of D-plus. Fewer adults in those states have earned postsecondary degrees or have incomes at or above the national median.

Little Change Over Time

In the midst of rapid economic and technological change, results on the index haven’t budged much since 2008, the year it made its debut with its current scoring format. The national score increased by just 0.1 points during that period, going from 78.4 in 2008 to 78.5 in 2018. The lack of improvement in the nation’s score over time—signifying a lack of growth in opportunity—is perhaps the most disconcerting finding from this analysis.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia increased their Chance-for-Success scores by a point or more since 2008. The District of Columbia improved the most, boosting its score by 6.5 points. That gain was fueled by the nation’s largest increase in preschool enrollment. Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Wyoming also improved their scores by more than 2 points. By contrast, 13 states saw their scores decline by a point or more during this span. Maryland fell the most, dropping by 3.3 points. It lost ground in family income and 8th grade math test scores.

On certain individual metrics, some states made progress while others regressed. In the District of Columbia, for example, the percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool increased by 14.6 percentage points between the 2008 and 2018 reports. In North Carolina and Hawaii, preschool enrollment declined by 5.0 and 5.1 points, respectively.

A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2018 edition of Education Week as What’s Behind the Myriad Factors That Make Up Someone’s Chances For Positive Lifetime Outcomes

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