Alison Yin/EdSource
Among the report's bright spots, nearly all children in California had health insurance.

Lagging math scores, rising rates of depression and teacher shortages have all contributed to grim conditions for millions of children in California, although some signs of hope shine though the data, a new report from Children Now found.

“Overall, things are worse because of the pandemic, especially for kids of color and those living in poverty,” Ted Lempert, president of Children Now said. “It took a once-a-century pandemic, but the state has responded a lot in recent years and we’re starting to see some progress.”

The report examines 40 measurements of children’s well-being, including health, education, welfare and early childhood, broken down by county, race and over time. Among the most concerning findings are:

  • Math and science scores. Only 31% of fifth graders met the science standard, and only 29% of eighth graders met the math standard in 2022. Among Black eighth graders, only 13% met the math standard. Rural counties tended to have the lowest scores. More funding to help students catch up is crucial, said Vincent Stewart, Children Now vice president of policy and programs. “Student performance in math and science is a significant issue we need to address,” Stewart said. “If we’re going to address the needs of these students, particularly Black and Brown and rural students, additional money is needed.”
  • Immunization rates. Ninety-four percent of kindergartners were up-to-date on their immunizations in 2020, down two percentage points from 2017. “That number is going in the wrong direction if we want to avoid a quadruple pandemic,” said Kelly Hardy, senior managing director of health and research.
  • Lead screening. Only 61% of children in Medi-Cal were screened for lead before age 2 in 2019. There were stark racial disparities: Black and white children were far less likely to be screened than Asian and Latino children. Imperial County had the highest screening rate, at 82%.
  • Teacher shortage. Statewide, 83% of teachers were fully credentialed and qualified in 2021, but some counties had rates far below that. Lake, San Benito, Modoc, Plumas, Sierra and Mendocino counties all had rates below 70%. Alpine, Napa and Riverside were at the top.

But the report also identified some promising data and policies that have been effective. The statewide graduation rate was 87% in 2022, a significant jump from 2017 that reflects increases among all groups of students. Prenatal care also increased among all groups, with 86% of pregnant people getting prenatal care in the first trimester.

Healthy birth weights also remained steady, at 93%. And 97% of children had health insurance, a big jump from a decade ago.

Lempert pointed to a number of state initiatives that have made a dent in conditions for California’s children in recent years. The state’s investment in transitional kindergarten, while it doesn’t solve the child care shortage, goes a long way to ensuring millions of 4-year-olds are ready for school. The community school initiative and Master Plan for Kids’ Mental Health are also expected to have a positive impact, as well as improvements in data collection.

Children Now, an Oakland-based research and advocacy organization, issues annual reports on the state of California’s youth. The group gathers information from schools, the census, the state and other sources and lobbies policy-makers to improve the lives of children in California.


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