In Essex County as in much of the nation, the available data about education paints a picture of stark disparities – concentrated groups and communities with low test scores, graduation rates, and low education levels among adults, against state and regional of statistics of high-achieving students, schools and adults.
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 be especially important for low-income children who tend to be exposed to a less rich vocabulary and have access to fewer resources than their peers. In Essex County in 2019, 43% of 4-year-olds were enrolled in public or private prekindergarten programs, up 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 2019, 15% of students were chronically absent in Essex County, the similar to the state rate and little changed since 2009. But some local districts had rates near or above 20%, including Haverhill, Lawrence, Methuen, and Salem.
School spending in Essex County across public school districts was $16,000 per student in 2018, slightly less than the statewide level of $16,800 and below the level in Middlesex, MA of $17,700. Spending in Essex County has increased 13% 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 56% of undergraduate college students and 63% 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 2019, 55% of 3rd graders were considered proficient on the state’s English Language Arts exams, up 5 points from the previous year.
Proficiency was lower among economically disadvantaged students (39%), Hispanic students (40%) and African American students (44%) compared with those who were not disadvantaged (65%) and white and Asian students (63% and 69%, respectively).
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 2019, 45% 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: 26% among economically disadvantaged students and 29% among Hispanic students and 28% among African American students.
Massachusetts requires students to pass 10th grade level state tests in math and English in order to graduate. In 2019, 57% of 10th graders passed the state’s language arts exam and 55% passed the math exam. Disparities were less pronounced on the English exam, with 35% of economically disadvantaged students, 34% of Hispanic students and 42% of African American students passing in 2019.
High school graduation rates in Essex County have been rising, with 87% of the 2015 cohort graduating in 2019, up 10 percentage points from 2006 and similar to the state graduation rate. Thirteen districts in the county had graduation rates of 95% or higher. The lowest graduation rates were in the high-poverty districts of Lawrence (71%) and Lynn (75%). Lawrence, however, had the largest gain since 2006, with a 30-point increase.
Students from low-income backgrounds graduated at a somewhat lower rate, 79% in 2019, though that was up from 61% in 2006. While 96% of Asian students and 94% of white students in the 2015 cohort graduated in 2019, rates were somewhat lower among African American and Hispanic students (86% and 76%). These disparities were comparable to rates at the state level among the same groups.
Essex County is a highly educated county in terms of the adult population, with 40% of adults in 2015-19 having at least a bachelor’s degree, up from 31% in 2000. That is above the national rate (32%) but below Massachusetts’ rate of 44% and below the rates in comparison counties: 56% in Middlesex, MA, 49% in Westchester, NY, and 45% in Lake, IL.
Some parts of Essex County and some groups within Essex County were significantly less well educated. In the cities of Lawrence and Lynn, just 11% and 19%, respectively, of adults had at least a bachelor’s. And throughout the county, only 12% of Hispanic residents had a bachelor’s or higher degree.