By Sujith Cherukumilli // June 30, 2019
In June 2019, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) released their 2019 Kids Count Data Book, one of the most comprehensive studies of child well-being available to the public. Released annually, the report grounds its findings in five overarching categories: overall child well-being, economic well-being, education, health, and family and community. Based on an individual state’s scores in the five listed categories and the quality of programs and opportunities available for children in that state, AECF assigns the state a ranking in each category and an overall ranking comparing it to other states. The report shows that education continues to be an area of concern for many states, particularly throughout the South; only one southern state made it into the top 10 in education rankings, while five of the bottom 10 spots were occupied by southern states. The troubling trends for educational outcomes throughout the South signal cause for concern as well as continuing equity-centered advocacy. It also represents an opportunity for improvements focused on a specific set of data-informed recommendations.
As a native of Georgia and a student of Georgia public schools for the entirety of my K-12 education, I paid close attention to Georgia’s ranking in each child well-being indicator and monitored the state’s progression or regression compared to 2018’s rankings. Georgia demonstrated growth between 2018 and 2019 in the overall child well-being category by shifting up from 39th to 38th, but remained stagnant in its education ranking at 34th nationwide, despite slight improvements in fourth grade reading proficiency rates and eighth grade math proficiency rates. The primary indicators used to calculate Georgia’s and other states’ education ranking include the following: the rate of young children not enrolled in high-quality early childhood education programs, the percentage of fourth graders not proficient in reading, the rate of eighth graders not proficient in math, the high school graduation rate, and the racial and ethnic disparities present in each of the indicators.
While improvements in the critical areas of math and reading proficiency are important to preparing Georgia’s students for an opportunity-rich future, the improvements also signify incremental progress that fails to reflect the urgency of adequately educating the state’s children. Data cited in the Kids Count report show that only 35 percent of fourth graders in Georgia are at or above proficient in reading, a one percent uptick from two years prior. Similarly, eighth grade math proficiency levels rose from a dismal 28 percent in 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data to a slightly better 31 percent in 2017 NAEP data. This demonstrated that only 3 out of every 10 students in Georgia can perform at or above grade-level in mathematics. Additionally, while Georgia outperformed many other southern states in average eighth grade math proficiency levels for African American students, a significant proficiency disparity in eighth grade exists between white students and students of color, as well as between students eligible for free or reduced lunch and students ineligible for free or reduced lunch. 2017 NAEP data show that 44 percent of white students scored at or above proficient in eighth grade math, while 14 percent of African American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students, respectively, scored at or above proficient. Among students eligible for free or reduced lunch, 17 percent scored at or above proficient compared to 50 percent of ineligible students scoring at or above proficient. Persistently disparate achievement levels between demographic and socioeconomic groups demonstrate that while Georgia’s slowly-rising proficiency rates in two key subject areas reflect an upward trend in the state’s overall educational outcomes, the opportunities available for marginalized students to show the same growth and similar results are inequitable at best and unavailable at worst.