As we emerge from the lowest points of the COVID pandemic, updated data points to potential concerns within the educational sector, including higher rates of school absence, lower enrollment in prekindergarten programs, and lower test performance on some assessments, particularly among students of color and those who are economically disadvantaged.

Educational success hinges upon myriad factors, but important ones include prekindergarten participation, school attendance and the adequacy of school funding. Prekindergarten helps prepare children both socially and academically for school, and can fill in gaps for children exposed to a less rich vocabulary or lacking in other resources. In Essex County in 2021, 30% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in public or private prekindergarten programs, down from 36% in 2002.

School attendance is increasingly measured by the share of students who miss 10% or more of the school year and are deemed “chronically absent.” In 2021, 18% of students were chronically absent in Essex County, an increase of 4 points from 2020 and reflective of a general increase in chronic absenteeism statewide since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Some local districts had rates near or above 30%, including Peabody, Gloucester, Salem, and Haverhill.

School spending in Essex County across public school districts was $18,100 per student in 2021, close to the statewide level of $19,100 and below the level in Middlesex, MA of $19,900. Spending in Essex County has increased 20% since 2008, after adjusting for inflation. The highest spending districts in Essex County were some of the vocational schools, with per-student spending levels at or above $20,000.

Enrollment in higher levels of schooling favors females, with women making up 58% of undergraduate college students and 62% of students in graduate and professional schools in Essex County. These disparities are similar to the state and national levels.

Measures of academic achievement show the majority of students in Essex County are considered proficient in key subjects, but many are not. Disparities in academic achievement remain significant, though some groups have made considerable progress over the last decade.

Third grade is an important milestone, particularly in the development of students’ literacy skills. Through third grade, many students are learning to read; from third grade on, they need to be able to read to learn. In Essex County in 2022, 39% of 3rd graders were considered proficient on the state’s English Language Arts exams, down 5 points from the previous year.

Proficiency was lower among economically disadvantaged students (23%), Hispanic students (20%) and African American students (30%) compared with those who were not disadvantaged (57%) and white and Asian students (53% and 55%, respectively). The passing rates in 2022 show marked declines for some groups, including economically disadvantaged students (down 32 points from 2019), Hispanic students (down 20 points) and African American students (down 14 points).

Similarly, 8th grade is an important benchmark for the development of math skills, as students are studying or will soon move into study of algebra and other high school-level math courses. In 2022, 34% of Essex County 8th graders were considered proficient on the state’s math exam. But on this exam as well, rates were lower among some groups: 19% among economically disadvantaged students and 18% among Hispanic students and 22% among African American students. Here too, 2022 passing rates were far lower for some groups, including economically disadvantaged students (down 29 points from 2017), Hispanic students (down 15 points) and African American students (down 12 points).

Massachusetts requires students to pass 10th grade level state tests in math and English in order to graduate. In 2022, 54% of 10th graders passed the state’s language arts exam and 43% passed the math exam. Disparities were less pronounced on the English exam, with 25% of economically disadvantaged students, 22% of Hispanic students and 25% of African American students passing in 2022. 

High school graduation rates in Essex County have been rising, with 90% of the 2017 cohort graduating in 2021, up 13 percentage points from 2006 and on par with the state graduation rate. Fourteen districts in the county had graduation rates of 95% or higher. The lowest graduation rates were in Salem and Lawrence (both 79%). Lawrence, however, had the largest gain since 2006, with a 38-point increase.

Students from low-income backgrounds graduated at a somewhat lower rate, 83% in 2021, though that was up significantly from 61% in 2006. Hispanic students in the 2017 cohort graduated at a lower rate (83%) in 2021 compared to 95% of Asian students 93% of white students, and 92% of African American students. These disparities were comparable to rates at the state level among the same groups, although Essex County’s rate among African American students was 8 points higher than the state. 

Essex County is a highly educated county in terms of the adult population, with 41% of adults in 2017-21 having at least a bachelor’s degree, up from 31% in 2000. That is above the national rate (34%) but below Massachusetts’ rate of 45% and below the rates in comparison counties: 58% in Middlesex, MA, 51% in Westchester, NY, and 46% in Lake, IL.

Some parts of Essex County and some groups within Essex County had much lower levels of education. In the cities of Lawrence and Lynn, just 14% and 21%, respectively, of adults had at least a bachelor’s. And throughout the county, only 15% of Hispanic residents had a bachelor’s or higher degree.