For Va. Kids, Success From An Early Age

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 4, 2007

To any parent who has wondered which children are most likely to succeed in life, a new national report offered an answer yesterday drawn from selected measures of economic affluence and academic achievement: the kids of Virginia.

The Quality Counts 2007 report, published by Education Week, found that Virginia scored higher than any other state on a new "chance-for-success" index that estimates the average child's opportunities based on factors such as family income, parental education, employment trends, test scores, preschool participation and graduation rates.

Maryland ranked fifth. The District of Columbia, included in the state rankings, scored 31st, in part because relatively few families have incomes well above the poverty line and because many public school fourth-graders scored poorly on a national reading test. New Mexico ranked last.

Over the past decade, the annual Education Week report focused on performance in kindergarten through high school. This year, researchers took a broader view in an effort to show the multiple challenges states face in the drive to improve education at all levels, close achievement gaps and ensure that students will be competitive in a global workforce.

"We can't just think about school as the silver bullet; it's not the only thing happening in society," said Christopher B. Swanson, director of the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, which developed the index. "A lot of what we're looking at are things that relate to socioeconomic advantage or disadvantage. Unfortunately in many cases, the gap between rich and poor kids doesn't narrow over the school years."

The report showed that many Virginia children have college-educated parents and live in families with incomes well above the poverty level. On average, the state's children bested their peers nationwide on standardized reading and math tests, and more than half of Virginia adults earn a salary above the national median.

Children in Maryland have many of the same circumstances. Nearly 44 percent of adults have a postsecondary degree, and in most families at least one parent has a full-time job.

In the District, more families live on lower incomes, and less than 30 percent of children have a parent with a postsecondary degree. Children in D.C. public schools tend to struggle with math and reading tests.

One criterion in the index that gave Virginia no points was preschool enrollment, which is on par with the national average of about 47 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds. However, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is seeking to expand access to state-funded preschool, targeting disadvantaged children first.

University of Virginia education professor Robert Pianta predicted that the report would help academics and lawmakers take a long view on education. These days, debate over how to help young adults succeed in college often leads to discussion about helping children do better in middle school or even improving the quality of preschools.

"We need to be paying attention to this pipeline that runs from preschool through college and understand the trajectories of success and how they are connected," Pianta said.

To create the index, researchers worked with education professors and others to select 13 measures that frequently correlate to educational success over a lifetime, Swanson said. They aimed to use reliable, readily available statistics that could be analyzed at the state level.

The measures they selected include kindergarten participation, high school graduation rates and the average annual salary of the workforce. States gained or lost points depending on how they compared with the national average.

Many of the social and economic factors in the index are beyond the control of schools. But former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, now president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group seeking to improve high schools, said lawmakers can use the data to find weaknesses in state education systems and push for money to fix them.

"This underscores the need for looking at a child's life and education as a continuing process needing effort and intervention at every step," Wise said. "This will give a lot of ammunition to governors and others who want to make a case on the return on investments."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company