Montana children know more, but drink and smoke more than the average American kid.
The annual Kids Count report, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is a massive collection of numbers that provides ample opportunity for data mining, with a long enough history to reveal unmistakable trends in the health, education and well-being of Montana children.
The survey is a project of the foundation, which is a child-advocacy organization that releases the data as a guide to helping formulate public policy - or what its lead Montana researcher calls "data-driven decision making."
And it concludes with an overall state "wellness" ranking among the states. Montana is 33 this year, a number in steady decline from its peak of 21 in 2002. New Hampshire is top-ranked, while Mississippi is dead last.
Why does Montana continue to slip? And is it necessarily bad news?
"If you look at the rankings, it's not really accurate," said Thale Dillon (first name pronounced "TALL-uh"), director of Montana Kids Count, part of the University of Montana Bureau of Business and Economic Research. "It's not just how we're doing, but how we're doing against other states."
It could mean that Montana is improving in key areas, but just not as quickly as other states, said Dillon, who annually compiles the data from numerous agencies.
And among improvements, there is plenty of good news.
• In four years since 2006, Montana cut its number of vehicle crashes by teen drivers in half. How did that happen? Said Dillon: "Infant safety seats, child seats, seat belt laws, graduated driver's licenses. The (Montana Department of Transportation) gets a lot of credit for that move."
• Montana children continue to improve in math and reading - and greatly outpace the average. One example is representative of that: fourth-grade math scores. In five years, the percentage of fourth-graders at or above a basic grasp of math rose from 72 percent to 88 percent (the U.S. average for 2009 was 81 percent). The percentage testing "proficient" rose from 24 to 45 percent, compared to the U.S. average of 38 percent.
• Use of alcohol and cigarettes continues to plummet, paralleling the trend in the U.S. (though Montana students are slightly above the average in both).
• Juvenile court referrals are falling precipitously (14,531 in 2005, to 8,293 in 2009).
• Substantiated cases of abuse - sexual or physical - have fallen by about 25 percent over the last five years.
Montana also scores well in infant mortality, and the percentage of children below the poverty line - 19 percent - mirrors the national average.
But not all the news is good, and much of it has to do with the economic recession.
While the rate of children living below the poverty line has remained fairly constant over five years - 16 percent to 19 percent - the percentage living in "extreme poverty" is growing. Extreme poverty is defined as children living in a home with an income of less than $10,878, which is exactly half the income to meet the federal definition of poverty.
That number rose from 7 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2009. Yet over the same period, the median income of families with children rose from $45,500 to $51,000.
The recession explains some, but not all, of that trend, said Dillon.
"I think the slide into the deep poverty, so to speak, was probably accelerated by the recession," she said. "But it seems like that trend started before the recession began."
In Missoula County, 18 percent live under the poverty line, a number that has been flat for five years. Ravalli County is at 21 percent, flat for five years; Flathead County is at 18 percent, flat; Lake County is at 31 percent, up 3 percent in five years; and Sanders County is at 30 percent, flat.
Montana also lags behind the nation in its dropout rate, though there was a big bump in that number in 2007 when the state redefined "dropout" to more closely align with national standards. The most recent figures, from 2009, show 9 percent of Montana teens age 16-19 are not in high school and have no diploma. The national average is 6 percent.
Combined with test-score date, Montana students are smarter but less likely to stay in school.
It's ironic, said Dillon.
"We are teaching them well," she said, "yet we cannot keep them in school to graduate."
Here are some county snapshots for western Montana:
Under-18 population: 21, 216
Children in poverty: 18 percent (flat for five years)
Juvenile referrals: 1,235 (compared to 1,953 in 2005)
Motor vehicle crashes with teen drivers: 466 (compared to 224 in 2006)
Dropout rate: 4.1 percent (2009), up from 3.4 percent (2005)
Under-18 population: 8,858
Children in poverty: 21 percent (flat for five years)
Juvenile referrals: 299 (compared to 512 in 2005)
Motor vehicle crashes with teen drivers: 58 (compared to 163 in 2006)
Dropout rate: 3.7 percent (2009), up from 3.4 percent (2005)
Under-18 population: 21,172
Children in poverty: 18 percent (flat for five years)
Juvenile referrals: 877 (compared to 1,573 in 2005)
Motor vehicle crashes with teen drivers: 228 (compared to 667 in 2006)
Dropout rate: 4.9 percent (2009), same as 2005
Under-18 population: 2,240
Children in poverty: 30 percent (flat for five years)
60 (compared to 99 in 2005)
Motor vehicle crashes with teen drivers: 12 (compared to 42 in 2006)
Dropout rate: 1.6 percent (2009), down from 2.5 percent in 2005
Under-18 population: 7,201
Children in poverty: 31 percent (up from 28 percent 2005)
Juvenile referrals: 213 (compared to 422 in 2005)
Motor vehicle crashes with teen drivers: 38 (compared to 86 in 2006)
Dropout rate: 6.9 percent (2009), up from 5.1 percent in 2005
Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at email@example.com.