National Report Ranks Tennessee 36th in Child Well-Being, Spotlights Learning Loss and Chronic Absenteeism


Tennessee ranks 36th in overall child well-being for the fourth straight year, according to the 2024 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, a 50-state report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzing recent data on how kids across the country are faring. This year, the annual report highlights key education issues Tennessee and other states are grappling with in the wake of the pandemic—including learning loss and chronic absenteeism.

Tennessee’s overall ranking in education was 32nd. National assessment data revealed large declines in proficiency between 2019 and 2022, but Tennessee’s own state assessments show significant gains from 2022 to 2023—rebounding in many areas to or beyond pre-pandemic levels. The Data Book also shows that 23% of Tennessee students were chronically absent during the 2021–2022 school year, a historic high.

“These new numbers help us understand how Tennessee compares to other states in areas important for our state’s economic competitiveness,” said Brian Straessle, executive director of the Sycamore Institute, Tennessee’s member of the KIDS COUNT network.

In its 35th year of publication, the KIDS COUNT® Data Book focuses on students’ basic reading and math skills, long-standing areas for improvement put in greater focus due to learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, unprecedented drops in learning from 2019 to 2022 amounted to decades of lost progress. Chronic absence also soared across the country, with children living in poverty especially unable to resume their school day routines regularly.

Other available national assessment data also show stark differences in educational outcomes across socioeconomic and demographic lines. For example, 83 percent of Tennessee 4th graders eligible for the school lunch program scored below proficient in reading in 2022—compared to 64 percent of their peers who are not eligible for the program. Similarly, 63 percent of white Tennessee 4th graders scored below proficient in reading—compared to 78 percent of Hispanic students and 87 percent of black students.

Each year, the Data Book presents national and state data from 16 indicators in four domains—economic well-being, education, health, and family and community factors—and ranks the states according to how children are faring. This year’s report ranks Tennessee 34th in economic well-being, 32nd in education, 38th in health, and 39th in family and community factors. 

These new rankings reflect both the effects of the pandemic and long-standing challenges. U.S. scores in reading and math have made little progress in recent decades. Tennessee saw significant gains in test scores in the early 2010s, but those improvements have largely stalled. Compared to peer nations, American children lag in the high-level reading, math, and digital problem-solving skills needed for many of today’s fastest-growing occupations in a highly competitive global economy.

Career readiness is important for the nation’s economy, Tennessee’s economic competitiveness, and our youth as they join the workforce. A recent report from the Hoover Institution estimates that America’s pandemic-related learning losses could translate to a $31 trillion economic impact during this century. Another analysis calculates that the drop in math scores between 2019 and 2022 will reduce lifetime earnings by 1.6% for 48 million pandemic-era students nationwide—or $900 billion in lost income.

While Tennessee students significantly improved on the state’s assessments in 2023, opportunities may exist to move the needle further. For example, as of March, Tennessee still had about 23% of its federal education pandemic funding (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER) remaining, which could be used to help boost achievement. The deadline to allocate this funding is September 30, 2024. Other opportunities could include: