There's a new superlative to describe Montana – "most improved."

It comes from the newest Kids Count Data Book, released Tuesday, in which Montana was highlighted as the state showing the most improvement in child well-being since last year. Montana moved from 30th to 24th, according to Kids Count, the data tracking arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on child welfare.

They define child well-being in four areas – health, education, family and community, and economics. Combined, they show Montana children improving academically and in health, despite economic challenges at home.

But the report doesn’t paint an entirely rosy picture.

In many areas, Montana still lags. For example, the report shows 61 percent of eighth-graders were not proficient in math last year; 19 percent of children lived in poverty in 2014; and 27 percent of children's families were dealing with a high housing cost burden – all three of which were improvements since 2007 and 2008. 

Highlighting Montana as “most improved” is a marked change from last year’s report, in which Montana’s overall ranking moved up just one spot to 30th – with two of the four categories showing declines.

“How you move in the rankings, it's two ways," said Montana Kids Count director Thale Dillon. "It's your own movement, getting worse or better, and it's the movement in the other states. So we could be essentially unchanged, but if all the other states were doing very, very poorly, we would look very good."

In that sense, the rankings can be misleading.

"But there have been significant improvements in some of Montana's indicators, health, for example," she said. "Two years in a row, we were absolutely last. Now we're up to 39th."

Health: 47th to 39th

Montana made its biggest leap in its health ranking. It’s the state’s best since the Casey Foundation started tracking these data in 1990.

Fewer and fewer Montana children lack health insurance, from 10 percent in 2008 to 6 percent in 2014.

"It's still a higher percentage than for the country as a whole, but better than we have ever had," Dillon said. "It’s a function of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. That preceded the Affordable Care Act."

Montana's biggest gain in health was jumping from 50th in 2010 to 38th this year in the child and teen death rate. It's declined 35 percent, from 36 deaths per 100,000 in 2008 to 29 per 100,000 in 2014.

"The biggest driver of accidental deaths in the state are traffic crashes," she said. "That’s huge. Per capita we lose more kids – and people, really – to traffic crashes than most other states."

The report cited the state’s efforts to encourage seat belt use, and discourage drug and alcohol abuse and suicide.

In the 2013-2014 school year, 6 percent of teenagers were reported as abusing alcohol or drugs. That’s down from 10 percent in 2010-2011.

Montana has the highest suicide rate in the nation: 23.8 per 100,000 in 2014, double the national average.

"It has not moved," Dillon said. "It's got a little bit of up-and-down trajectory, whereas deaths are on a solid downward slope. There's so many factors that play into it (suicide) that you can't target just one area. But access to means of suicide is definitely a big thing."

In that respect, Montana is unique, she said.

"Among youth, usually boys use firearms and girls use poison or pills or suffocation," she said. "In Montana, it's firearms for both, and a larger proportion than for other states. We're not advocating for taking guns away. What we're talking about is means restrictions, because prescription drugs also kill. It's a proven fact that if a person, child or adult, does not have immediate access to means of suicide, they're likely to not attempt it."

Education: 22nd to 24th

Despite high school graduation rates increasing 6 percentage points since 2009, Montana fell in its overall education ranking.

Last school year, the state reached an 86 percent graduation rate, improving every year since Graduation Matters Montana got underway in 2009.

Kids Count criticized the state for not funding preschool, saying that the rising graduation rate is “tempered by low-to-non-existing investment in high-quality early childhood education.” Montana is one of eight states that does not fund preschool.

"One of the things the Casey Foundation promotes is opportunities, and help enabling families to help themselves," Dillon said.

Family and community: 19th to 15th

Montana’s highest ranking is in "family and community," at 15th nationwide.

The teen birth rate is down, from 39 per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19 in 2008 to 26 per 1,000 in 2014. Kids Count also tracked the education of households, noting that in 2014, 7 percent of children lived in households in which the head of house didn’t have a high school diploma. That’s down from 9 percent in 2008.

"I think it's heartening, it's good to see that we're making improvements in areas around graduation and teen pregnancy and lowering our drinking," said Missoula County Public Schools student wellness coordinator Carol Ewen. "But it's also kind of sad because our poverty rate is staying the same. The reason we bumped up is because other states have fallen lower."

Community is key for Ewen.

"In my job we work a lot with community members, the health department, mental health agencies, nonprofits who support kids – and they do such a great job teaming with the school district, helping us really provide an environment and community where kids can grow up healthy," she said. "It sounds corny ... but that's something that rural Montana is good at. We're pretty good at working together, because we're so small. Everyone knows everyone. Maybe some of the hard work we've been doing is starting to finally pay off."

Economics: 20th to 19th

The state's child poverty rate is nearly stagnant, described in the report as "levels of persistent poverty that mirror national trends."

In 2008, 21 percent of Montana children were in poverty, compared to 19 percent in 2014.

"I think it’s important to not – and this is the case with all data – just look at a point in time, but how data values are changing over a period of a couple years," Dillon said. "Because like I mentioned, the suicide rate goes up and down quite a bit, depending on which year you look at it. The more responsible way to look at data is to look at trends."

Montana's suicide rate has increased during the years from 22.5 per 100,000 in 2009 to 23.8 per 100,000 in 2014.

Kids Count reported that Montana moving up in economics is "the result of other states falling further behind."

In 2014, 29 percent of Montana children’s parents lacked secure employment, 27 percent of children lived in households with a high housing cost burden, and 7 percent of teenagers were not in school and not working, according to the report.

"There are challenges for kids still living in poverty," Ewen said. "We see a lot of kids who have been exposed to trauma. So how do we support those kids, help them learn the skills so they can self-regulate, stay in school and get an education?"

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