In children’s health, Washington stands above almost every other state. But high-school graduation rates and low enrollment in preschool continue to drag down the overall status of kids here, according to an annual ranking.

Share story

Just as a report card provides snapshot assessments of each student’s academic status, the annual Kids Count Data Book offers a quick measurement of each state’s standing on an array of issues that affect children, from health care to education.

This year, Washington reached the upper ranks of those providing health insurance to children, doing better than 45 other states. And the number of kids living in poverty dropped to a five-year low.

“We cover immigrants and refugee children — that’s one of the reasons we’re doing better than other states on racial equity,” said Julie Watts, deputy director at the left-leaning Washington State Budget & Policy Center. “Some of the greatest advances have been among black, Latino and Asian children, and the expansion of Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a core reason for it.”

But the federal ACA is now under fierce debate in Congress, and Washington’s progress on children’s health is clouded by its continued lower-than-average rates for high-school graduation, as well as an unusually high proportion of 3- and 4-year-olds — 60 percent — not in preschool. (The national average is 53 percent.)

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Together, those two factors placed Washington at 28th nationally for public education.

The assessments are issued annually by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which noted “remarkable” improvements in kids’ health across the nation — such that 95 percent of American children are now covered by insurance.

At the same time, teen birthrates have plummeted by 63 percent since 1990 and are now at record lows. Washington, which reports 18 births to every 1,000 teenage girls, posts numbers even better than the national average of 22 teen births per 1,000 young women.

But in one area — graduation rates — Washington teens do markedly worse.

In 2015, about 22 percent of students who’d begun ninth grade four years earlier did not graduate. The national rate was 17 percent.

Watts believes the most efficient way to boost these numbers is getting more children into preschool, which has been correlated with reduced special-education placements and better achievement overall.

She noted that 23,000 kids who could benefit from early education are not getting it because the state’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) is underfunded.

Diving deeper, the Kids Count data show that 60 percent of fourth-graders in Washington were not reading at grade level in 2015, though that’s an improvement over the 2009 rate of 67 percent.

In math, results have flatlined, with 61 percent of eighth-graders working at grade level, the same as six years earlier.

“What surprised me were the gains made among children of color,” Watts said, referring to health insurance particularly. “But what’s going on in Congress really threatens to roll back those gains we’ve made.”