‘We should not be satisfied… We know we have further to go’

This story was originally published in Rhode Island Current, a publication partner of Ocean State Stories.

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island placed 12th in an annual nationwide survey of children’s well-being, but was outranked by every other New England state except Maine, according to a report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

While Rhode Island’s overall ranking was high, it performed unevenly across the four categories that inform the overall score. 

The Ocean State also ranked sixth in health and ninth in economic well-being, but received less positive grades in the remaining two categories, placing 20th in family and community, and 29th in education.

“Rhode Island’s percentage of children in poverty has improved significantly, however, we should not be satisfied,” Paige Clausius‐Parks, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, said in a statement. 

“We have federal funds available to end deep child poverty in Rhode Island. We are thrilled that the General Assembly has proposed to undo harm to children in poverty by ending full family sanctions and increasing the monthly benefit amount.”

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The foundation aggregates national and state data on child welfare and policy from across all 50 states to produce its KIDS COUNT Data Book, now in its 35th year of publication. Sixteen indicators — like the number of children living in poverty, literacy rates, teen births or children without health insurance — are used to rank states in four major categories. An overall rank is calculated based on states’ performance across the four categories.

Rhode Island’s economic and health scores were due to positive performance across several indicators. Only 2%, or 5,000, of the state’s children didn’t have health insurance. Child and teen death rates in 2022 were low, with 14 per 100,000 youths. Some states like Alaska, Louisiana and Montana saw over 45 deaths per 100,000 youths.  

In 2022, most of Rhode Island’s 3- and 4-year-olds — 55% — were not in school. That same year, 66% of the state’s fourth graders were not proficient in reading, and 76% of eighth-graders were not proficient in math. In the 2020-2021 school year, 16% of high school students did not graduate on time. 

“Rhode Island’s ranking in 4th graders reading at grade has improved but we know we have further to go,” Clausius-Parks said. “We are pleased with the Governor’s and House’s investment of $5 million in reading and math achievement.”

Subpar performance in education is a nationwide trend, and a prominent theme of this year’s Data Book, which opens with a letter from Lisa M. Hamilton, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s president and CEO.

“Today’s kids will become this country’s mid-21st century workforce — and we as a nation have failed to prepare them,” Hamilton wrote, and cited that nationally 32% of fourth graders were proficient in reading in 2022. That’s up from 28% in 2000, but down from 34% in 2019. Math is worse, with 26% of eighth graders proficient in the subject. 

Two other trends in education have not seen much recent improvement nationally. The number of 3- and 4-year-olds in school was 52% in 2022, down 2% from 2018. As of 2021, the number of high schoolers graduating on time has stagnated at 14% for two years. 

Chronic absenteeism is also cited as a perennial problem, one made worse by the pandemic. While the Data Book did not use absenteeism as an indicator, it noted that in the 2021-2022 school year, 30% of students nationwide, or nearly 15 million kids, missed at least 10% of school days in the academic year.

In the 2022-2023 academic year, Rhode Island’s overall chronic absenteeism rate for students K-12 was 31%, according to Rhode Island KIDS COUNT’s 2024 Factbook. Higher rates were observed in kindergarten and first grade, as well as middle and high school. Some groups, like Hispanic and low-income students, saw absence rates of 39% — some of the groups also hit hardest by the pandemic, the Fact Book noted.

Downward trends in basic literacy and math skills, Hamilton argued in her letter, could have lasting effects on the economy. In 2021, there were 36.8 million people working in STEM fields — a workforce that could be harmed by future job-seekers without the requisite skills. “Jobs that pay well in fields that are growing quickly — positions such as software developers, data scientists and industrial machinery mechanics — will be open to math-proficient jobseekers,” Hamilton wrote. “Not all of these careers require advanced degrees or even a bachelor’s degree, but they do require skills that too few students in America are acquiring.”The full nationwide report can be found at the KIDS COUNT Data Center website.