The Stanford Education Data Archive has put county-level average student achievement by race available on its website. Because of No Child Left Behind, the vast majority (over 85%) of public school students had to take the tests these results are based on, so they represent a convincing picture of how students in different places across the country are doing.
These results will be used extensively to discuss school quality and education reforms, but they probably tell us more about the differences among populations and how different factors interact with social class. For example, let’s take the “Deaths of Despair” statistic that Anne Case and Angus Deaton have been arguing with Christopher Ruhm about: the rate at which 45-54 Year Old White Non-Hispanics are dying (drawn from CDC Wonder) in different places over the last several years. Looking at the years 2009-2015, this statistic is very tightly correlated with the level of student achievement for 3rd through 8th graders in the same years at the county level:
You might think – and you would be right- that this is partly because local school achievement levels- how well kids are doing on their tests- are tightly linked to local income levels:
But it turns out that even if you control for median income, elementary school achievement in a county still tells you a lot about where middle aged people are dying early or late. In fact, you can pretty much throw anything you want at a county-level regression of mortality on local social factors, and local school achievement still remains statistically significant and substantially negatively correlated with mortality:
The same is true for black mortality: black kids’ test scores are a great predictor of where older black adults’ mortality will be high or low.
Moreover, while black student achievement is correlated (more loosely) with average county income, black elementary school achievement is highly predictive of elevated adult mortality independent of other obvious indicators of socioeconomic status- in fact, surprisingly enough, counties with a higher employment rate and higher % of young adults with bachelors degrees actually have higher black mortality, all else being equal, presumably because the black population in those counties is not representative of the county as a whole:
None of this is particularly surprising, but it does underline that social class in America isn’t simply a matter of race ( these regressions are within race rather than between), nor simply a matter of income. There are multiple mechanisms by which kids’ school achievement and their parents and grandparents’ health are entwined (genetically, through healthier choices or better environmental conditions, or through better public services). The most pessimistic view is that what the Bell Curve predicted, the last few decades have observed: a dispersion by cognitive ability between American communities that is manifest along almost every dimension, including life and death.