School improvements and better health care propelled Tennessee up the charts in the newest national ranking of the well-being of children.
Tennessee's climb to 36th this year — up from 39th — put the state among the five with the biggest improvements in the annual Kids Count data published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
On all eight scores for education and health, Tennessee made strides.
More children met reading and math goals. Preschool enrollments increased. More teenagers graduated high school on time.
And babies were born healthier and with a greater likelihood of having health insurance. At the same time, the child death rate fell, as did the rates of teen alcohol and drug abuse.
But the news wasn't all good. The poverty rate worsened again. And the state now has more kids living in single-parent homes, another sign the foundation associates with family hardship.
"Report cards are useful in that they give us a quick snapshot," said Michael Warren, director of family health and wellness for the state Department of Health. "They really highlight the situation of children in our state and create an opportunity for conversation. And you can look to see where there are some areas for improvement."
Looking over the health measures, Warren pointed to a decrease in low-birth weight babies — down to 9.2 percent of births — as a good sign for the long-term health of Tennesseans.
He said efforts to reduce smoking during pregnancy are underway in all 95 counties, one piece of a broad push toward a national goal of just 7.8 percent low-birth weight babies by 2020.
Meanwhile, as more Tennessee children became insured, some 85,000 remained without coverage, according to the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth. Announcing the state rankings, commission Executive Director Linda O'Neal said expansion of TennCare, the state's version of Medicaid for low-income families, would further increase children with coverage.
The report card also bolstered evidence that Tennessee children have made learning gains in recent years, even as criticism of education chief Kevin Huffman has grown from a cry to a roar from school superintendents and some lawmakers.
Kids Count captures the same improvements on the National Assessment of Educational Progress announced in November.
"It is absolutely noteworthy and exceptional improvement," said Teresa Wasson, spokeswoman for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. "This is setting Tennessee children up for success after high school."
Wasson said reforms set in motion with students in mind have made a difference, including tougher classroom standards and better use of data.
Still, she said, the state needs to see the changes through.
"We still have a ways to go," she said. "We don't want to be the best of the second half."
The state's commission on children praised a slight gain in how many young children are now going to preschool, but said Tennessee remains among the 10 states with the lowest rates of preschool attendance.
Nationally, the new report found growing preschool attendance and gains in reading and math abilities, and more kids are growing up in homes where at least one parent has a high school diploma.
The U.S. also has hit a historic low for the rate of teens giving birth.