Brief Which Students Are We Counting? A Descriptive Analysis of Student Characteristics and Data Availability of US Territories and Commonwealths
Wendy Castillo
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Some data are available on the 325,149 known students enrolled in public schools in US territories and commonwealths—including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands—but there are significant amounts of missing and incomplete data for other territories and commonwealths, such as the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and the Republic of Palau. The lack of widely available data means it is difficult to understand the conditions and quality of education in these areas. And without comprehensive data for every US territory and commonwealth, policymakers and advocates cannot measure the magnitude of inequities and cannot directly help vulnerable students. 

Key Findings

Studying the populations of US territories and commonwealths between 1991 and 2020, we found the following:

  • There were 325,149 students were enrolled in 2020 in the five territories that have publicly available data: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Marina Islands, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
  • Guam and American Samoa have steady student enrollment, and the Northern Marina Islands’ enrollment has slightly increased.
  • The Puerto Rican student population declined by more than half from 642,392 students to 276,413 students over 30 years.
  • Enrollment in the US Virgin Islands decreased by 50 percent from 21,755 students to 10,993 students.
  • Though only five territories have available data, English learner rates vary widely; Puerto Rico has an English learner rate of 1.7 percent, while the Northern Mariana Islands and American Samoa high shares of English learners (98.7 percent and 90.3 percent, respectively). But the Northern Mariana Islands’ and American Samoa’s high shares as well as Puerto Rico’s low share prompt questions about how the data are collected, specifically around English learner identification protocols and questionnaires.
  • Puerto Rico reported a rate of 3 percent for special education students, and the US Virgin Islands reported a rate of 10.1 percent. Special education rates were not available for Guam, America Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
  • In Puerto Rico, the territory with the most data available, math proficiency rates increased from 26 percent in 2009 to 30 percent in 2018, and reading scores increased from 41 percent in 2009 to 45 percent in 2018.

Implications

Though some data are available about students, we do not have enough federally available data. And because of the lack of data from some territories, we do not know the total number of students enrolled across all territories and commonwealths. We also do not know what needs these students have.

Additionally, the quality of data is limited. Puerto Rico is the only territory that has accessible academic proficiency data. Key data such as academic achievement rates, as well as the number of enrolled English learners and students with disabilities, are not available in many territories. It is unclear how data are collected in territories, especially around English learner identification protocols and questionnaires. If policymakers and researchers collected more and higher-quality data on students in territories and commonwealths, they could highlight often-overlooked American students, make educational inequities more visible, and better serve all students.

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Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States Guam American Samoa Northern Mariana Islands U.S. Virgin Islands Puerto Rico