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Evan Horowitz

Mass. children No. 1, but compared to whom?

It’s official. Kids in Massachusetts are number one. That’s the finding of this year’s KIDS COUNT Data Book, which looks across all 50 states and compares things like test scores, child poverty rates, teen pregnancy, and health insurance coverage.

While it’s nice to see Massachusetts children leading the nation, it’s not that surprising. We’re a very rich state, which means our government has more money to invest in schools, parents can afford more help and enrichment, and almost everyone has access to good health care. Call it the Massachusetts vs. Mississippi problem. Yes, kids in the Commonwealth are doing better than kids in the Magnolia State, which came in 50th out of 50 in the KIDS COUNT rankings. But then we have vastly more resources.

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Money isn’t everything. Policy choices matter too. But if we want to tease out just how effective our policy choices have been, we might go beyond the states and compare ourselves with other, similarly wealthy countries. When we do, the picture looks different. Child poverty turns out to be relatively high in Massachusetts, and while our education system is quite competitive, it is not at the very top.

Child poverty

About 1 in 7 kids in Massachusetts lives in poverty. That’s much better than the nation as a whole, where nearly 1 in 4 kids live in poverty. But by international standards, it’s still quite high.

To make good, apples-to-apples comparisons across countries, you need to use a slightly different poverty measure. On this international measure, the US poverty rate comes out a bit better: 21 percent. Massachusetts, however, looks slightly worse, with a child poverty rate of 18 percent. That puts us nearly 30th among developed countries, dramatically higher than the UK (9.8 percent), Germany (8.1 percent), or Finland (3 percent).

Education

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If there’s one thing Massachusetts kids do really well, it’s take tests. We have the best fourth grade reading scores and the best eighth grade math scores of any state in the country. On average, we perform 5 to 6 percent better than the nation as a whole.

One of the leading tools for comparing education systems around the world is a test of 15-year-olds called PISA, or Program for International Student Assessment. In 2012, US students came in 27th out of 34 on the math section and 17th in reading, behind nearly every European country and well behind the Asian leaders.

If Massachusetts students performed 5 to 6 percent than the US average, as they do on national tests, we’d move way up the international ladder. In reading, we’d break the top 10. And while our math scores wouldn’t be quite so good, we’d still lead the UK, France, and Denmark.

PISA Scores
MathReading
Shanghai-China613570
Singapore573542
Hong Kong-China561545
Chinese Taipei560523
Korea554536
Macao-China538509
Japan536538
Liechtenstein535516
Switzerland531509
Netherlands523511
Estonia521516
Finland519524
Canada518523
Poland518518
Belgium515509
Germany514508
Massachusetts (est.)510523
Austria506490
Australia504512
Ireland501523
Slovenia501481
Denmark500496
New Zealand500512
Czech Republic499493
France495505
United Kingdom494499
Iceland493483
Latvia491489
Luxembourg490488
Norway489504
Portugal487488
Italy485490
Spain484488
Russian Federation482475
Slovak Republic482463
United States481498
Lithuania479477
Sweden478483
Hungary477488
Croatia471485
Israel466486
Dubai (UAE)4640
Greece453477

Source: OECD

Pre-school attendance

Kids who attend high-quality pre-school end up doing better academically and even find higher-paying careers as adults.

Between 75 and 80 percent of 4-year-olds in Massachusetts go to pre-school, which is higher than the 69 percent rate for the United States as a whole. But it still puts Massachusetts behind 25 other developed countries, including Hungary, Mexico, and France (where virtually 100 percent of 4-year-olds attend pre-school).

Overall child well-being

Comparing children across states is one way to assess how they’re faring. But it’s important to keep in mind that relative to other countries, child well-being in the United States is generally quite low. Among other things, the OECD finds that kids in the United States have high infant mortality, low literacy rates, and high levels of “educational deprivation.”

If we really want to understand how kids in Massachusetts are doing, it makes sense not only to look at how we compare to poorer states, but also how we compare with wealthy countries. More than “Massachusetts vs. Mississippi,” it’s also “Massachusetts vs. the world.”

Update: A reader reminds me that Massachusetts actually took part in the 2012 PISA exam, and that our results closely match these estimates.

Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz
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