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Status of Education in Rural America
NCES 2007-040
June 2007

Measuring rural education

Measuring rural education

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in its authorizing legislation is charged with the task of reporting information on issues surrounding education by "urban, rural, suburban districts, and other population characteristics, when such disaggregated information will facilitate educational and policy decisionmaking."1 To further this aim, NCES has developed a new classification system to make the reporting of locale consistent across its various surveys, as well as improve upon previous systems. This report marks the first use of the new classification system across NCES surveys to describe elementary and secondary education in rural settings and other locales.

Rural education has been the focus of a sizable volume of recent research, which has examined rural schools' student achievement, finances, cultural diversity, responses to special needs students, distance education programs, crime rates, and staff recruitment and retention (Imazeki and Reschovsky 2003; McClure and Reeves 2004; Nelson 2004; RosenKoetter, Irwin, and Saceda 2004; Smith, Hill, Evans, and Bandera 2000; Wenger and Dinsmore 2005; Williams 2005). However, the ability to compare findings across this research, and as a result, the potential usefulness of this research, is hampered by the lack of a single, uniform definition of "rural."

To help address this problem and improve rural education reporting, NCES worked with the Census Bureau to create new measures of locale based on improved geocoding technology and the 2000 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) definitions of metro areas that rely less on population size and county boundaries than proximity of an address to an urbanized area. Released in 2006, the new measures or locale codes are assigned to each school according to the school's physical longitude and latitude. Thus, these new locale codes make school data more consistent, accurate, and useful to policymakers, researchers, and educators concerned with rural education issues.

This report presents various education indicators, using the 2006 locale codes, to provide a more comprehensive description of the current condition of rural education. The report's focus is on elementary and secondary schools, although a few indicators look at postsecondary enrollment and adult education and attainment to provide a context for student expectations and opportunities. This report does not examine trends. Rather, most indicators report data from the school year 2003–04 or calendar year 2004, the first year of data that include the new locale codes. Data from prior years were not recoded in order to examine trends. The data apply to the 50 states and the District of Columbia.


The New Classification System

The new urban-centric classification system has four major locale categories—city, suburban, town, and rural—each of which is subdivided into three subcategories. Cities and suburbs are subdivided into the categories small, midsize, or large; towns and rural areas are subdivided by their proximity to an urbanized area into the categories fringe, distant, or remote (see exhibit A). These twelve categories are based on several key concepts that Census uses to define an area's urbanicity: principal city, urbanized area, and urban cluster. A principal city is a city that contains the primary population and economic center of a metropolitan statistical area, which, in turn, is defined as one or more contiguous counties that have a "core" area with a large population nucleus and adjacent communities that are highly integrated economically or socially with the core. Urbanized areas and urban clusters are densely settled "cores" of Census-defined blocks with adjacent densely settled surrounding areas. Core areas with populations of 50,000 or more are designated as urbanized areas; those with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 are designated as urban clusters. For more information on urbanized areas and urban clusters, click here. Rural areas are designated by Census as those areas that do not lie inside an urbanized area or urban cluster.

NCES has classified all schools into one of these twelve categories based on schools' actual addresses and their corresponding coordinates of latitude and longitude. Not only does this mean that the location of any school can be identified precisely, but also that distance measures can be used to identify town and rural subtypes. Unlike the previous classification system that differentiated towns on the basis of population size, the new system differentiates towns and rural areas on the basis of their proximity to larger urban centers. This key feature allows NCES to identify and differentiate rural schools and school districts in relatively remote areas from those that may be located just outside an urban center.

The choropleth map (see exhibit C) shows the proportion and location of the Census-defined locales in the United States. Differences in locale type are indicated by color. Cities are red, suburban areas are orange, and towns are yellow. Rural areas are represented by varying shades of green: the lightest green indicates fringe rural areas, medium-green indicates distant rural areas, and the darkest green indicates remote rural areas. For the purposes of this map, locales are presented at the level of Census blocks (not by schools or school districts), giving an overall view of the relative concentrations and arrangement of the various locales across the country.


Impact of New Classification System

Expanding the school locale codes to twelve categories allows for a greater degree of precision in identifying schools according to their distance from an urban area and the population density of the location, yet it does not cause an enormous shift in the number or percentage of public elementary and secondary schools that are classified as rural. Overall, about 6 percent of these schools were affected by the reclassification: 2,878 schools were newly designated as rural, and 2,418 formerly rural schools were placed in a nonrural category (see exhibit B). The net change was a 0.5 percentage point increase in the total number of public schools classified as rural in the United States; however, there were larger shifts within the rural category, as 8 percent of public schools formerly classified as rural were no longer considered rural in the new system. Also, the number of students enrolled in public schools classified as rural increased 1 percent, by 337,000. Aside from providing the benefit of a more accurate classification for these schools, the distinguishing benefit of this classification system lies in its ability to distinguish between schools in fringe, distant, and remote rural areas.

The new classification system allows for the collection and reporting of high-quality data across the range of rural locales (and other locales) with greater consistency and integrity. At present, all NCES national surveys are able to report findings for the major locale designations (i.e., city, suburb, town, and rural). Larger surveys, such as the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), and universe datasets, such as the Common Core of Data (CCD), are also able to report breakouts for the various subcategories—including fringe, distant, and remote rural areas. Where possible, those data are included in this report.


Organization of the Report

This report is the first national effort to report on a variety of educational variables using the new locale codes. It is organized into three chapters: demographics, outcomes, and resources for public schools. The demographic information that is presented in the first chapter describes the number of schools and students in rural areas and examines some of the characteristics of those students and schools, including race/ethnicity, poverty status, the use of a language other than English as a primary language, and the degree of parental involvement in education. The outcomes chapter of this report highlights student achievement data in reading, mathematics, and science. It also provides dropout rates, high school completion rates, and college enrollment rates, as well as employment rates and earnings of adults. The final chapter focuses on public school resources, including federal and state revenues, computer access, pupil/teacher ratios, and indicators of teacher characteristics from the most recent Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS).

Using the most recent data from the surveys already mentioned and other national surveys—including the CCD, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), National Household Education Surveys Program (NHES), the Fast Response Survey System (FRSS), and the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS)—this report sets new standards in the breadth of information provided and in the consistency of the metrics used to highlight the condition of rural education. It is meant to serve as a foundation for further discussion and future research on the educational characteristics and developments unique to rural schools as well as those shared with other locales in America.


1 U.S. Code, Title 20, Chapter 76, Subchapter 1, Part C, Sec. 9543 (a)(3); P.L. 107-279, Part C, Sec. 153 (a)(3).