Education: A mixed report card
Greater Washington is leaving many children behind.
While high-quality education is lauded as an equalizer that leads to increased economic prosperity in adulthood, many schools and school districts struggle to provide children with this foundation for success.11 Many of the Greater Washington region’s students are not gaining the competencies schools intend to foster. The data show that many young people have a tenuous or nonexistent connection with school. From early childhood through early adulthood, educational outcomes vary across jurisdictions, resulting in a mixed report card for the region on how well the education system is preparing young people for the future. Poverty and discrimination—often longstanding—also contribute to disparate outcomes by family income and race/ethnicity.
Brain science and developmental studies confirm that education begins long before children start formal schooling. During the first years of life, one million neural connections per second form in the young brain.12 Investments that communities and families make in these early years of life can have long-term positive effects on a young person’s development. The Greater Washington area has taken important strides to increase access to early care and learning; however, there is insufficient data on the quality of these environments and learning experiences. The available data suggest that a sizable proportion of young children are not ready for school.
Most students in the region complete high school, which is a fundamental milestone but no longer a sufficient requirement for most employment opportunities. The high school credential has become less valuable over time as the nation’s economy has changed.13 Adults who have a postsecondary degree earn substantially more over the course of their lifetime compared to those with a high school diploma.14
The current generation of children and youth ages 0 to 24 is the most racially and ethnically diverse in recent history—both nationally and in the Greater Washington area. Ensuring greater access to and success in postsecondary education for Black and Hispanic students—and for academically struggling students—will be necessary if Greater Washington’s children and youth, regardless of their background, are to benefit from the region’s prosperity and growth.
Public pre-K enrollment is up by more than 10,000 children region-wide, driven largely by increased numbers in the District of Columbia and four other jurisdictions.
Public pre-kindergarten (pre-K) can promote children’s learning and, when offered for a full day, can also support parental employment.15 Within Greater Washington, as well as across the country, more school districts are attempting to expand publicly funded pre-K programs to serve all children residing in the area.16 In the District of Columbia, much progress has already been made toward the goal of universal access to pre-K. In Virginia and Maryland, eligibility for such programs is still restricted to families who are economically disadvantaged.17, 18
- From 2011 to 2019, the number of children enrolled in public pre-K programs in the Greater Washington area increased from 19,456 to 30,198.
- In 2010, children in the District of Columbia made up just over half of the region’s public pre-K population (at 9,897). By 2017, they represented a smaller proportion, at about 40 percent (12,866).
- Besides the District of Columbia, other areas experiencing public pre-K enrollment increases of more than 1,000 children included Fairfax County, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Prince William County. More than 90 percent of the children enrolled in public pre-K come from these five (out of nine) jurisdictions within the Greater Washington area.
In addition to pre-K, many young children are in nonparental child care. High-quality child care can provide many of the benefits of pre-K and, in many cases, may be better suited to parents’ employment schedules. Participation in these programs varies based on factors such as the cost of care relative to one’s family income, other indicators of access (such as the convenience and quality of providers), and preferences to use parental care for young children.19
- In 2017, 75,470 children ages 3 and 4 in the Greater Washington area were enrolled in some kind of public or private early care and education program.
- Areas with the highest proportions of preschool-age children participating in early care and education programs in 2017 included (see Figure 5):
- Falls Church, at 88 percent
- District of Columbia, at 73 percent
- Arlington County, at 71 percent
- Multiple jurisdictions experienced declines in the percentage and number of 3- and 4-year-old children in these programs from 2010 to 2017, including Fairfax County, Loudoun County, Prince George’s County, and Prince William County.
Figure 5. Percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K or other early learning program, 2010 and 2017
- Another important indicator of children’s access to early care and education is the availability of licensed providers20 relative to the early childhood population (birth through age 5). Notably, these data are not available for the Virginia jurisdictions of the Greater Washington area. In 2018, licensed center-based capacity to care for young children in local Maryland jurisdictions and the District of Columbia varied:
- In Montgomery County, it was 50.8 percent.
- In the District of Columbia, it was 39.2 percent.
- In Prince George’s County, it was 35.5 percent.
Across the Greater Washington region, too few children are adequately prepared for kindergarten.
To take full advantage of the opportunities offered in school, children need basic social and emotional skills, cognitive and language skills, motor and other physical skills, and a foundation of good health, including adequate sleep and nutrition.21
Readiness is a two-way street: Schools must be ready to meet the diverse needs and experiences of children and their families.22 Young children who are not adequately prepared for school can fall further behind their peers, jeopardizing their longer-term academic success, unless their needs are identified and they are given extra support.23
While no nationally adopted measure of kindergarten readiness exists, many states and communities have implemented their own assessments. These vary in their comprehensiveness, format, and alignment with developmental principles, and their results are used for a variety of purposes.24, 25, 26, 27 Data show that anywhere from 20 to 60 percent of young children are not ready for kindergarten.
Due to the diversity of measures used, kindergarten readiness data cannot be compared across jurisdictions, but the following jurisdictional results are notable:
- In Falls Church, the majority of children (82 percent) enter kindergarten ready for school.
- In other jurisdictions for which data are available, a much smaller portion of children are ready for kindergarten:
- In Loudoun County, 67 percent of children are deemed ready for kindergarten.
- A little more than half the children in Alexandria (56 percent) meet the criteria for readiness.
- Fewer than half the children assessed in Prince George’s County (39 percent) were considered ready for kindergarten.
Reflecting the child population, schools in the region are becoming more racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse.
Across the region, public school enrollment has increased, with Hispanic students accounting for much of the growth. The proportion of students who are English language learners (ELLs)28 is also increasing region-wide.
- Since the 2010-2011 school year, public school enrollment in Greater Washington overall (K-12, as of 2018-2019) increased by about 95,000 (14 percent).
- The greatest growth occurred in Alexandria, where enrollment is up by one third.
- Hispanic students account for an increasing percentage of total enrollments in every Greater Washington jurisdiction, except for Arlington County (where Hispanics students are nevertheless more than one in four [28.1 percent] of all students).
- The Hispanic student population increased by more than 13 percentage points in Prince George’s County, jumping from 21 to 34 percent.
- In several jurisdictions, the Hispanic student population increased by more than 5 percentage points: Alexandria (30.7 to 36.2 percent), Montgomery County (25.3 to 30.8 percent), Prince William County (28.6 to 34.4 percent), and the District of Columbia (13 to 18.1 percent).
- Percentages of ELLs increased in most jurisdictions since the 2010-2011 school year (see Figure 6).
- In Alexandria, almost one in three children (30.5 percent) are ELLs. This is up from 21.9 percent in the 2010-2011 school year.
- Sizable increases in the ELL student population were also found in Prince George’s County, where it increased from 11.5 to 19.5 percent.
- The ELL student population also increased in Montgomery County from 13.3 to 17.7 percent during this timeframe.
- Similarly, ELL student population increased in Loudoun County to 11.1 percent, up from 7.6 percent in the 2010-2011 school year.
Figure 6. Percentage of students who are English Language Learners, SY 2010-11 and 2018-19
Chronic absenteeism is lower than the national average in several jurisdictions of the Greater Washington area, but it remains a serious problem in a few others, especially among high school students.
Chronic absenteeism describes students who miss 10 percent (around 18 days) or more of the school year. Students who do not consistently attend school are not able to reap the benefits of education, social relationships and, in some cases, food provided on-site. Poor school attendance is an early warning indicator that a student may not perform well and may not graduate from high school.29 The reasons for chronic absenteeism are varied and result from individual, family, and community-wide challenges at home or in school, such as fears about safety. Schools are increasingly recognizing the need to develop multifaceted strategies to address chronic absenteeism in their buildings. These include efforts to improve school climate and address factors that young people might be experiencing, such as homelessness, that can make it more difficult for them to attend school regularly.30
- In two of the largest jurisdictions, Prince George’s County and the District of Columbia, the percentage of K-8 students who are chronically absent exceeds the national average of 14 percent (see Figure 7).31
- Among high school students, rates of chronic absenteeism are high in the following jurisdictions:
- District of Columbia (54.9 percent)
- Montgomery County (27.1 percent)
- Prince William County (23.3 percent)
- Prince George’s County (33.5 percent)
- In most other parts of the Greater Washington area, the rates of chronic absenteeism fall below the national average.
Figure 7. Percentage of students who are chronically absent, SY 2017-18
Despite increasing school enrollment across the region, a sizable percentage and number of school-age children in the Greater Washington area are not enrolled in school. Current data are not robust enough to explain their absence.
For a small proportion of the area’s school-age children and youth, school enrollment cannot be determined, raising concerns that institutional or personal barriers, faulty data, or some combination of these factors may be to blame.
- According to Census Bureau estimates, as of 2017, more than 17,000 children in Greater Washington ages 5 to 14 are not enrolled in school, an increase of 2,000 since 2010. In addition, nearly 28,000 adolescents ages 15 to 19 are not in school.
- These numbers could include some children who stay away from public institutions to avoid harassment or apprehension due their immigrant status.
- Students who are not enrolled in school may also include those who have dropped out of school, high school graduates who have not yet continued their education, and those in institutional care. Youth enrolled in “vocational, technical, or business school” and non-publicly funded GED programs are also reported as “not enrolled in school.”
- In 2017, across jurisdictions, 2 to 5 percent of children ages 5 to 14 were not enrolled in school (see Figure 8). In most jurisdictions, the percentages of children ages 5 to14 who were not enrolled in school changed very little from 2010 to 2017.
Figure 8. Percentage of children ages 5-14 years not enrolled in school, by jurisdiction, 2010 and 2017
Across the region, there are large gaps in math and reading proficiency levels among racial and ethnic groups; in some Virginia jurisdictions, gaps in reading proficiency levels have widened over time.
For several decades, consistent with federal guidance, states have used a handful of standardized assessments that define which students are proficient in a given subject area. Each state determines the content covered in their assessments, and how score cut-offs define “proficiency.”32, 33, 34, 35 Virginia used its homegrown Standards of Learning (SOL) assessment, while the District of Columbia and Maryland[xxvi] used the test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
In Virginia, after the standardized assessments for reading and math were changed in the 2011-2012 school year and became more challenging, the percentage of students who met proficiency on assessments across all racial and ethnic groups dropped substantially. However, proficiency levels dropped more rapidly and rebounded more slowly for Black and Hispanic students.
Figure 9. Gap in reading proficiency between Black and White 8th graders, SY 2010-11 and 2017-18
- For example, in Alexandria, the gap in reading proficiency between White and Black eighth-grade students doubled since the 2010-2011 school year, jumping from 11 percentage points in 2010-2011 to 22.4 percentage points in 2018-2019 (see Figure 9 for 2017-2018 school year).
- In 2010-2011, 94 percent of White eighth graders scored at proficient levels in reading; 83 percent of Black eighth-grade students scored at proficient levels that year, representing an 11 percentage-point gap.
- In 2018-2019, 87.5 percent of White eighth-grade students scored at proficient levels in reading; 65.1 percent of Black eighth-grade students scored at proficient levels that year, representing a 22.4 percentage point gap.
- Similarly, the eighth-grade reading proficiency gap doubled in Fairfax County during 2017-18 school year, increasing from 9 to 20 percentage points.
After the introduction of the PARCC in Maryland and the District of Columbia in 2015, test score differences across racial and ethnic groups in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and in the District were much larger than those found in the Virginia jurisdictions.
- The gaps in the percentage of students who meet proficiency levels on assessments are largest in the District of Columbia, ranging upwards of 60 percentage points between White students and Black/Hispanic students for some subjects and grades. For example, in the 2018-2019 school year, fourth-grade reading assessments found that a little over one quarter of Black students (27 percent) met proficiency levels, compared to 85 percent of White students.
- This trend holds in eighth-grade reading as well, with 30 percent of Black students attaining proficiency compared to 90 percent of White students in the District of Columbia.
- However, from 2014-2015 to 2017-2018, the racial and ethnic gaps in PARCC scores in Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and the District fluctuated and varied by subject and grade but persisted over time.
This comparison of average proficiency levels masks the fact that some of the racial and ethnic achievement gaps might be explained by differences in income, school quality, and other factors. Both nationally and within the Greater Washington area, gaps in test scores by racial and ethnic groups are rooted in structural and historical racism and inequality, particularly in the areas of schooling and housing.
Young people in the Greater Washington area have fairly high ninth-grade promotion rates, graduation rates, and postsecondary participation rates.
Ninth graders who successfully progress to the next grade on time are more likely to graduate from high school.37, 38
- The District of Columbia has the lowest ninth-grade promotion rate (the percentage of ninth graders who successfully promote to the 10th grade) in the area, at 75 percent (see Figure 10).
- In most jurisdictions in Virginia, ninth-grade promotion rates were between 90 percent and 100 percent.
Figure 10. Ninth-grade promotion rate, by jurisdiction, SY 2017-18
On-time graduation is measured by the percentage of students who complete high school within four years.39 Among students who do not graduate on time, some may re-enroll in another grade; some may participate in other education options, such as earning a GED, earning community college credits, or pursuing an industry recognized certification; and others may simply drop out.
- High school graduation rates range from 68.2 percent (District of Columbia) to 100 percent in Falls Church, but controversies linger as to the accuracy of these data in some jurisdictions.40,41
Enrolling in postsecondary education is a critical marker of progress toward obtaining a high-quality job,42 and it often benefits one’s academic and personal development as well. However, even if students enroll in postsecondary education, they face a number of challenges that frequently prevent them from obtaining a postsecondary degree.43
Data used to measure college enrollment in the Greater Washington region include the number of students who graduated from high school in 2016 and enrolled in a postsecondary education institution within 16 months of graduation.
- Overall, 83 percent of 2016 high school graduates in the Greater Washington area enrolled in college or other postsecondary institutions.
- Across jurisdictions, between 72 and 93 percent of high school students enrolled in college or other postsecondary institutions within 16 months of graduation.
Relatively few young people in the Greater Washington region are not in school and not working.
Some young people—commonly referred to as “opportunity youth”—are neither in school nor employed, leaving them disconnected from the paths likely to lead to economic self-sufficiency. Reasons for young people’s disconnection from the labor market and schooling may include lack of access to opportunities and resources that would enable them to be engaged in school or work. Other reasons include involvement in the criminal justice system, family responsibilities (including parenthood and pregnancy), or chronic disabilities. Communities that do not address barriers that young people might face in their efforts to gain employment or continue their schooling will not benefit from the contributions that these young people have the potential to offer.44
Today, many youth and young adults follow paths other than enrolling in full- or part-time postsecondary education immediately after high school. Instead, they may obtain full- or part-time work (including training, internships, apprenticeships, or military service), or experience brief unemployment before reaching a level of financial stability.
Figure 11. Opportunity youth ages 16-19, not enrolled in school, not employed, and not in the labor force, by jurisdiction, 2010 and 2017
While the percentage of opportunity youth across the region is relatively low and did not change significantly from 2010 to 2017, individual jurisdictions have seen their percentages change markedly.
- In the Greater Washington area overall, 5.5 percent of all youth ages 16 through 19 (approximately 13,000) were neither enrolled in school nor employed or in the labor force in 2017.
- This is fairly similar to the percentage of opportunity youth (5.7 percent) in the area in 2010. These relatively small rates may be due to the region’s strong economy, as well as the large number of educational institutions.
- From 2010 to 2017, the following areas experienced increases in the percentage of opportunity youth (see Figure 11):
- In Arlington, the percent of opportunity youth has more than doubled from 4.0 to 8.8 percent.
- The percent of opportunity youth in Falls Church has more than tripled from 3.9 to 14.3 percent.
- Smaller increases were found in two counties:
- In Fairfax County, the percent of opportunity youth increased from 2.8 to 3.9 percent.
- In Loudoun County, the percent of opportunity youth increased from 2.2 to 2.5 percent.
- During the same timeframe, the percentage of opportunity youth slightly decreased (by 0.4 to 2.2 percentage points) in other area jurisdictions, including Alexandria, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, Prince William County, and the District of Columbia.