The Condition of Education: Frequently Asked Questions, Answered

Every spring, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) releases an omnibus report, The Condition of Education. AIR, the prime contractor for this report, is responsible for content development.

In this Q&A, Jijun Zhang, a senior research analyst at AIR who has worked on this report for a decade, explains how it is compiled, who uses it, and what it can tell us about the state of education—both today and over time. Zhang manages AIR’s Statistical Standards and Data Confidentiality Project. She also leads AIR’s Condition of Education task and develops, analyzes, and writes other topical and annual reports for NCES.

Q. What is The Condition of Education?

Zhang: The Condition of Education is a congressionally mandated report that is provided to Congress each year. As the title says, the report describes the state of education in the United States, from kindergarten through postsecondary education, as well as labor force outcomes of young adults and international comparisons. The report, sometimes referred to as education’s annual checkup, was first published in 1975.

Q. Why is this report important?

Zhang: The report really paints a picture of education on an annual basis and, with the longitudinal data, over time. Policymakers and the general public need to know the overall condition of public and private education—who is in school; how students perform; what resources are provided to schools; what we know about teachers and principals; and what comes out of the school system, such as graduation rates and education attainment levels.   

Q. What types of information does the report include?

Four Major Categories of Indicators in The Condition of Education:

1. Preprimary, elementary, and secondary education
2. Postsecondary education
3. Population characteristics and economic outcomes
4. International comparisons

Zhang: There are four major categories of indicators. For each major category, there are more detailed subcategories. For example, under the first category—preprimary, elementary, and secondary education—we provide data on family characteristics; preprimary education enrollment in public schools, public charter schools, and private schools; the characteristics of these types of schools; English language learners; children and youth with disabilities; the concentration of public school students eligible for the free and reduced-price lunch program, a poverty measure; and school crime and safety.

Many indicators are staples that are updated every year, such as reading, mathematics, and science performance, which are based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. The indicators in each report correspond to the data collection cycle. If the data source is updated every year, we update the indicator every year. If not, we update the indicator when new data sets are available.

Q. How has the report changed over time?

Zhang: The major categories have been relatively consistent, which I think people appreciate. From my review of the 1984 report, I do see that the scope of The Condition of Education has expanded in terms of the breadth and depth of the indicators covered.

The Condition of Education is available on the NCES website. The full report, highlights, Spotlights, or individual indicators can be downloaded as PDFs, and the reference tables can be downloaded as Excel files.

The introduction of Spotlight indicators in 2005, which was expanded in 2013, has allowed us to present more in-depth analyses of new topics of emerging interest to the policymaking community. For instance, in 2018, several members of Congress lauded a report, Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside the Classroom, that AIR researchers authored for NCES on the gap of students’ access to the Internet. This prompted NCES to include a regular indicator on children’s access to and use of the Internet in The Condition of Education.

Q. Who typically uses the report, and for what purposes?

Zhang: The Condition of Education has a wide audience. Policymakers in Congress and the Department of Education are key audiences. Researchers and graduate students look at the indicators and dig deeper to do their own analysis; The Condition of Education typically presents results from descriptive analysis.

People who are interested in a particular topic, such as school crime and safety or postsecondary enrollment, use these indicators to understand what’s happening in the field or advocate for change. State and local policymakers and practitioners rely on the data as well to inform policies and practices. The media cover the report’s release, which lets the general public know about the data.

Q. What is the process of developing the report?

Zhang: It’s a year-long process to create this report, which is almost 400 pages long in 2019—not including the data tables available on NCES website. The planning with NCES starts by examining the previous year’s report as the basis to determine the indicators. The 2019 report has about 50 indicators in the PDF and online.

Most indicators in The Condition of Education summarize data from surveys conducted by NCES or by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Close to 20 people at AIR are involved in some way in producing the report—analyzing data, producing data tables and other visual displays of information, writing descriptions of the data, copyediting, and checking the data. We pay so much attention to the nitty-gritty details to make sure that we produce a quality report, with numbers and information that people can trust. The team also assists NCES in promoting the report through various social media, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Image of Jijun Zhang
Principal Research Analyst