California has made gains in the early stages of children's academic trajectory but has failed to sustain them, a new assessment of kids' well-being has shown.
The findings, released yesterday by the research and advocacy group Children Now, showed statewide improvement in 11 indicators of well-being, including certain measures of academic performance and student engagement at school. But they also highlighted 12 areas in which the state has made little or no progress, such as the rate of high school seniors who graduate on time.
"California is on the right track," said Jessica Mindnich, associate director of research at Children Now. "You are seeing some of the effects where the state has decided to prioritize."
In the percentage of third-graders who read at grade level, for example, California improved 39 percent between the 2002-03 and 2010-11 school years. Its percentage of seventh-graders meeting or exceeding state standards in math jumped 67 percent during the same period.
Still, just 46 percent of third-graders met the reading target, and half of seventh-graders met or exceeded the math standards. On both measures, Latino and African American children performed worse than their white and Asian peers – disparities that persisted in many of the report's indicators of well-being.
The rates were even lower in low-income rural counties, with the exception of Shasta, where 47 percent of third-graders read at grade level. In Mendocino County, for example, 27 percent of third-graders read at grade level. By comparison, 69 percent of third-grade children in Marin County read at grade level – the highest rate in the state.
The two measures – reading in third grade and math in seventh grade – are important markers that might indicate whether a child is likely to fall behind later, Mindnich said. Student-level data show that 76 percent of high school seniors graduated on time in 2010-11, a 1 percent increase from the year prior.
Many of the report's 28 indicators showed that children living in low-income rural counties are faring the worst, in spite of making substantial gains in recent years. The trend underscores greater need, fewer resources and less access to services in rural communities, Mindnich said.
Children's well-being varied in Bay Area counties, all considered high-income urban areas in the report. In Marin County, for example, children's well-being ranked in the top third of the state in 21 indicators. The county ranked first in the state in several measures, including preschool attendance (73 percent). Children in Solano County, on the other hand, ranked in the top third in five indicators.
In addition to academic performance, the report also looked at children's physical and emotional health – as measured by indicators such as healthy weight, health insurance coverage and risk for depression.
"It's not just what happens in the classroom," Mindnich said. "We also need to think of what's the environment we're creating for children when they are at school."
In a statewide survey that gauges how engaged children feel with their schools, for example, 44 percent of students said they felt connected to their schools in the 2009-11 cycle. That's up 47 percent from six years earlier.
While the improvement was substantial, "it's still very low," Mindnich said. "These are things we have to start thinking about more broadly if we want to see big jumps in our graduation rates."
Mindnich said she expects to see some improvement in children's well-being in the coming years. She noted several bills to reform student discipline that Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law recently that could lead to improvements.
"We're starting to pay more attention to school climate, to those intangible things that influence a child's academic achievement," she said. "I think it will be slow progress."
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.