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Puerto Rico’s poor kids, youth ‘significantly lagging’ in education

The island ranks 31st on the Child and Youth Well-Being Index, compared with 51 U.S. jurisdictions.

The latest results from the standardized tests META 2022-2023 highlight substantial academic proficiency gaps between students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers in Puerto Rico, the Youth Development Institute (IDJ) stated during an event to discuss the results.

The data reveals “troubling disparities across all the tested subjects, underscoring the urgent need to address these disparities immediately,” the entity stated.

During the IDJ Data Week 2024 event, hosted at the Centro para Puerto Rico in Río Piedras on Wednesday, more than 150 advocates, policymakers, nonprofit sector leaders and government workers discussed the findings using the IDJ’s new Puerto Rico Family Data Center tool developed by the Instituto del Desarrollo de la Juventud.

The tool allows users to interact with data through a user-friendly interface and create maps, graphs, and data tables available for download.

In the subject of Spanish, only 34% of students with an economically disadvantaged background achieved proficiency, compared to 49% of their peers with a more affluent background. For math, a similar pattern was observed, with only 22% of economically disadvantaged students achieving proficiency, while 28% of their peers with more economic resources reached proficiency.

The gap widens further in English, where only 30% of disadvantaged students achieved proficiency, in stark contrast to 50% of students without economic disadvantage. In sciences, 36% of students from low-income backgrounds reached proficiency, compared to 48% of those without economic hardship.

Furthermore, Puerto Rico remains in the lowest position nationwide for math proficiency, as 0% of fourth graders have achieved proficient or advanced levels in this subject. This percentage reflects the results from a sample of public-school students within the Puerto Rico Department of Education who participated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

“Children in Puerto Rico are facing terrible odds for economic upward mobility. Six out of 10 live in poverty, 39% are not enrolled in pre-school, and 0% of students in fourth grade achieve a proficient or advanced academic level in math. The future success of Puerto Rico rests on the shoulders of these children, a group that has reduced in population size by almost half since the 2000s,” said Brayan L. Rosa-Rodríguez, executive director of the IDJ and a member of the KIDS Count network in Puerto Rico.

“The data shows that we aren’t doing enough to open opportunities for these children and their families,” said Rosa-Rodríguez.

“Data collected by the IDJ, as the Puerto Rico Kids Count Partner, is crucial to develop a strategy that addresses the most pressing issues impacting children and their families. Our call is for elected officials, government leaders and the private sector to make the smart choice: invest in families with children,” he said.

“We cannot construct an economic future without guaranteeing the success of these children and the moment to act is now. We’ll lay out a policy agenda that provides concrete steps that can reduce child poverty, increase opportunities for economic mobility and foster the creation of good jobs,” he added.

Key findings from the most recent school year include:

  • 4 of every 10 boys and girls aged 3 through 4 are not enrolled in pre-school education, a decrease of almost 4 percentage points in comparison with the data of 2011. Despite this, Puerto Rico is in better condition in this respect compared to other jurisdictions. The jurisdiction that ranked best in this indicator is the District of Columbia, where only 21% of children are not enrolled in a pre-school program and the worst-ranked is North Dakota where 71% are not enrolled in pre-school education.
  • Likewise, in the range of children aged 3 through 17 not enrolled in schools, Puerto Rico ranks in the best position, after District of Columbia with 6%. This represents a decrease of 2 percentage points compared to the past 10 years.
  • In the 2022-2023 school year, 48.2% of the 250,668 students enrolled in public schools experienced chronic absenteeism (51% with economic disadvantage and 34% without economic disadvantage), while in the 2021-2022 school year, 48.6% of the 259,353 students experienced chronic absenteeism (67% with economic disadvantage and 54% without economic disadvantage).
  • Puerto Rico fourth grade students ranked the worst position in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments in mathematics, compared with the National Public and other jurisdictions, with no students at or above proficient level. The average score of fourth grade students in Puerto Rico was 178, significantly less than National Public, by 57 points.

“This lack of readiness will result in major harm to the nation’s economy and to our youth as they join the workforce. Students who do not advance beyond lower levels of math are more likely to be unemployed after high school. One analysis calculates the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 will reduce lifetime earnings by 1.6% for 48 million pandemic-era students, for a total of $900 billion in lost income,” the report stated.

However, some states have delayed spending their share of the $190 billion critical federal pandemic funding (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER) that could help boost achievement. The deadline to allocate — not spend — this funding is Sept. 30. Tens of billions of dollars set aside for schools will vanish forever if states do not act immediately, the news release emphasizes.

IDJ recommendations include:

  • Ensuring access to preschool development and education programs
  • Expansion of extended-hour programs in public schools — This objective has been implemented during the current government as the Extended Academic Reinforcement (RAE) program. More than 600 schools and 78,079 students, or 31%, participated in the program. There is no public information on this program’s progress or whether it has reached its participation goals.
  • Implementing bi-generational models in public schools — These models impact the whole family. Many families face multiple barriers to employment, such as lack of transportation, childcare, or post-secondary education, which affect children. Puerto Rico’s public schools are an ideal environment for implementing bi-generational models because 80% of the students they serve come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, making the school community conducive to functioning as the epicenter of service provision.

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This story was written by our staff based on a press release.

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