Indiana’s Overall Child Well-Being Scores Decline in New National Report

The annual publication pointed to some gains for Hoosier youth in health and family categories, though.

A new state-by-state report shows Indiana’s child well-being ranking has dropped — in part due to Hoosier kids’ dismal math and reading scores, as well as increased rates of youth deaths.

Although Indiana continues to rank in the bottom half of states for its rates of teen births and children living in high-poverty or in single-parent households, those numbers are showing improvement.

The 2024 KIDS COUNT Data Book ranked Indiana 27th among states, three places lower than last year. It’s still a slight improvement, however, compared to 2022 and 2021, when the state ranked 28th and 29th, respectively.

In specific categories covered in the latest report, Indiana came in 15th for economic well-being, 17th in education, 31st in family and community, and 32nd in health.

“Indiana has significant opportunities and challenges ahead in supporting the well-being of our children,” said Tami Silverman, president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute.

“We should celebrate the progress we’ve made, especially in economic well-being areas such as parental employment rates and housing affordability; and we must acknowledge the disparities that persist for our kids,” Silverman continued. “Every child in Indiana should have access to quality education, regardless of their background or circumstances. By addressing these disparities head-on, we not only invest in the future of our children but also in the economic prosperity of our state.”

The report is prepared by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in conjunction with organizations across the county, including the Indiana Youth Institute. It rates states in 16 wide-ranging areas, which are lumped together under the categories of health, education, economic well-being, and family and community support.

Gaps in reading and math

The education portion of the latest edition — focused on student achievement — reiterates low numbers familiar to Hoosier education officials.

Just 32% of fourth graders nationally were at or above proficiency in reading in 2022, the latest year for which numbers were available. That was down from the 34% who were proficient in 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scores were even worse for eighth grade math. Nationwide, only 26% of eighth graders were at or above proficiency in math two years ago, down from 33% in 2019.

In Indiana, one-third of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency in reading — a four percentage-point decrease from the 2019 rate of 37%, the report showed.

Further, only 30% of Indiana eighth grade students performed at or above proficiency in math, marking an 11% decrease from 2019, ranking the state 11th nationally.

Among Indiana fourth graders in 2022, Black students had an average reading score that was 23 points lower than that of white students. Students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) had an average reading score 18 points lower than those not eligible for NSLP, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

Meanwhile, eighth grade Black students in Indiana had an average math score that was 31 points lower than white students. Hispanic students in the same grade had an average math score that was 19 points lower than their white peers.

The Casey Foundation report contends that the pandemic is not the sole cause of lower test scores, though. Rather, the foundation says educators, researchers, policymakers and employers who track students’ academic readiness have been ringing alarm bells “for a long time.”

U.S. scores in reading and math have barely budged in decades. In Indiana, state education officials have repeatedly pointed out that Hoosier literacy exam scores have been on the decline since 2015.

During the 2024 legislative session, state lawmakers took decisive action as part of an ongoing push to improve literacy and K-12 student performance.

Paramount among the new laws passed was one to require reading-deficient third graders to be held back a year in school.

Stats on youth health and family life

Health-focused portions of the report show that — after peaking in 2021 — the national child and teen death rate stabilized at 30 deaths per 100,000 children and youth ages 1 to 19.

But in Indiana, the death rate has continued to rise. While 29 deaths per 100,000 Hoosier children and youth were recorded in 2019, the rate increased to 36 deaths in 2022, per the report.

The Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) has already drawn attention, for example, to higher rates of mental health crises such as depression and suicidal ideation among the state’s youth. According to IYI data, one out of every three students from 7th to 12th grade reported experiencing persistent sadness and hopelessness. One out of seven students made a plan to commit suicide.

The most recent data available additionally show that nationwide and in Indiana, the child poverty rate improved and economic security of parents increased back to pre-pandemic levels.

Between 2018 and 2022, roughly 113,000 — or 7% — of Hoosier children were reportedly living in high-poverty areas. That’s a drop from 10% between 2013 and 2017, according to the report.

From 2019 to 2022, teen births per 1,000 declined from 21 to 17, and the percentage of children in single-parent families also dropped from 35% to 32%.

Still, some gains

Advocates pointed to “some bright spots” for Hoosier kids and their families in this year’s national report, as well:

Between 2019 and 2022, more parents (75%) had full-time secure employment in Indiana — which surpassed both the national average and that of the four neighboring states: Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio.

In 2022, fewer children (22%) lived in households that faced a high housing cost burden, spending 30% of their income solely on housing expenses, in comparison to the national average (30%).
In 2022, more Hoosier teens (95%) between the ages 16 and 19 were either enrolled in school or employed, an improvement from 93% in 2019.
Far fewer children under 19 (5%) were also uninsured. Indiana saw the fifth-highest decrease nationally in uninsured children between 2019 and 2022 — a 29% improvement.

The report offers several recommendations for policymakers, school leaders and educators that include chronicling absenteeism data by grade, establishing a culture to pursue evidence-based solutions and incorporating intensive, in-person tutoring to align with the school curriculum.

“Kids of all ages and grades must have what they need to learn each day, such as enough food and sleep and a safe way to get to school, as well as the additional resources they might need to perform at their highest potential and thrive, like tutoring and mental health services,” said Lisa Hamilton, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “Our policies and priorities have not focused on these factors in preparing young people for the economy, short-changing a whole generation.”

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Indiana Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Niki Kelly for questions: info@indianacapitalchronicle.com. Follow Indiana Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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