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KIDS COUNT: Tennessee education gains offset by losses in other areas

Staff Reports • Jul 6, 2020 at 9:00 PM

NASHVILLE — The well-being of Tennessee children has improved in many areas in the last eight years, according to information in the KIDS COUNT Data Book released June 22 by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. After having been ranked in the 40s in earlier years, the state’s overall rankings in recent years have stayed in the 30s, including 39th overall in the latest report.

“While changes in the way the data are collected limit our ability to compare this year’s ranking to older ones, TCCY is pleased Tennessee now ranks better than it did in the early days of its participation in KIDS COUNT, when the state ranking was much nearer the bottom,” said Richard Kennedy, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, the state’s KIDS COUNT affiliate.

Tennessee’s strongest gains came in fourth grade reading proficiency and eighth grade math proficiency, determined by scores on the biannual National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The nationwide data also includes Virginia, which ranked 14th overall.

“Tennessee’s schoolchildren are making gains,” Kennedy said. “Continued investments in education, especially to address the racial and ethnic disparities that remain, are key to the state’s future prosperity.”

Though the data in the report documents the state of children and families before the pandemic, the report recognizes that 2020 will be remembered as a year of crisis. It recommends that states concentrate their efforts on helping children, families and communities become more resilient so they can continue to thrive.

The report also shines a light on the ongoing racial and ethnic disparities in the data. While children of all races and ethnicities have seen improvements over the last several years, disparities are persistent and systemic.

Tennessee’s 2020 ranking on how the state is providing opportunities and support to children and families is based on rankings in four domains — economic well-being, education, health and family and community context — each of which is comprised of four measures. Data from 2018, the most recent year available, is compared to data from 2010 to look at trends over time.

Tennessee’s highest rank is in the education domain at 29, and its lowest is for health, where the state ranked 48.

The state’s education domain rank is supported by the 90% of Tennessee high school students graduating on time in 2018, the third-highest rate in the country, and by relatively high achievement in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math. However, the state had one of the lowest rates of young children attending pre-K programs, with over 60% not enrolled in early childhood education.

Tennessee struggles with health issues and fell in the rankings to 48th from 33rd last year. Low birth weight continues to be a challenge, with 9.3% of babies born at low birth weight, higher than the national average of 8.3%, and one of the 10 highest rates in the country. The state’s ranking was also negatively affected by a change in indicators that make up the health ranking. A previous measure of teen substance use was problematic and was switched out for a measure of youth overweight and obesity. Tennessee had always ranked well on the substance use measure, but the state is 48th on the overweight and obesity measure. This change has lowered Tennessee’s overall health rank.

The state dropped a bit across all measures in the economic well-being domain compared to last year, moving to 43rd from 32nd. Family economic challenges continue to be a problem for the state, with more than one in five children living in poverty. However, Tennessee has seen improvement in all the economic well-being measures compared to 2010.

The state has also lost a little ground in family and community context, falling to 42nd from 39th last year. Tennessee’s teen birth rate dropped from 43 per 1,000 in 2010 to 25 per 1,000 in 2018; however, rates in other states decreased at a faster rate, leaving Tennessee ranked 41.

“Tennessee has been a leader in good public policy. With multiple challenges facing children and families during the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a moment for Tennessee to increase investments to support families rather than reduce them,” Kennedy said.

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