Student awards

Eighth-grade students were called up to the stage to receive school awards at the annual end of the year awards program and commencement at Westview in this file photo from June 3, 2019. In a school district like Westview, many Amish students end their school careers at eighth grade, which can skew statistical data about the community.

LaGrange County is the least-educated county in Indiana and the sixth-least- educated in the nation, according to a recent report from data analysis site Stacker.

But Stacker’s 50-state roundup doesn’t contain a key piece of context — taking into account LaGrange County’s large Amish population, much of which doesn’t attend school past eighth grade.

It’s a notable warning that data, while useful, doesn’t always tell the whole story on its own.

The article, “The least educated county in every state,” ranks LaGrange County as Indiana’s least- educated, although people familiar with the region probably wouldn’t be surprised by that.

The study used U.S. Census data, then applied an analysis of educational attainment to assign counties scores and rank them.

“This index evaluates each county’s over-25 population across seven educational tiers, ranging from individuals not educated past eighth grade to those with graduate or professional degrees. For each segment of these tiers, a points-based indexing system was applied in direct proportion to the estimated years of schooling for each level of educational attainment. Lastly, the full range of index scores was normalized to a 0 to 100 scale, with 100 representing the most educated county in the United States,” the Stacker article stacks.

Based on that analysis, LaGrange County received a 70.88 score, with the article pulling out data points of 27.8% of the population having a less than high school education; 32.4% having a high school diploma or equivalent; 5.8% of people with associate degrees; and 10.4% with a bachelor’s degree or above.

Aside from being ranked last in Indiana, Stacker also ranked LaGrange County as 3,136th out of the 3,142 counties and parishes in the U.S.

The article cites a KPC Media Group report about a past meeting in which LaGrange County schools hosted a presentation about how school vouchers have sucked money out of public school systems as one possible explanation.

But what the article doesn’t take into account at all is that more than one-third of LaGrange County is Amish, and the county has the third-largest Amish community in America.

As most, but not all, Amish children end their public education at eighth grade, it’s a foregone conclusion than the county would rank low for educational attainment based on a by-the-numbers look.

That bears out elsehwere in the Stacker report. Holmes County, Ohio, which was Ohio’s least-educated and also the second least-educated in the nation, is similarly a huge Amish county, with more than 40% of the population being Amish.

While Amish generally don’t go on to achieve higher education, while in school, they tend to be pretty good students.

Westview School Corp., which has the largest percentage of LaGrange County’s public-school-going Amish children, is perennially the area’s best in test scores and school effectiveness ratings.

“I do see those reports every once in a while. LaGrange County is always shaded a different color because we do have less high school degrees and college education,” Westview Superintendent Randy Miller said. “(Our Amish students) are oftentimes well-behaved, disciplined, they listen well, and they’re willing learners, so typically we have a lot of academic success because we have a lot of kids from two-parent households. Not only are we giving them a traditional academic foundation, they have the ability through their culture and connections to be successful in the business world.”

In the K-8 level, Miller said, for years it’s been a nearly 50/50 between Amish and nonAmish students. But almost all Amish students choose to end their formal education at eighth grade, which is celebrated with an annual commencement ceremony.

“It’s what you do with what you have. A college degree does not guarantee you success,” Miller said. “It’s what you put into what you’re given, is what I believe in and push to our Westview folks.”

“When you’ve got approximately 45% of your population base Amish and they finish school grade 8 — there are some that go on, some that go to high school, some that go beyond, but very few — it skews it definitely in a direction,” LaGrange County Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Bill Bradley said.

“It would be interesting to see if a figure could be derived for the 55% English population, what amount of those have what educational attainment.”

Data is often a useful tool for quantifying characteristics about a place or population, but the Amish is one area that the U.S. Census and other data sets never seem to account for. While Amish and English get counted the same for measures like unemployment or poverty rate, things like educational attainment or health insurance coverage almost always skew LaGrange County to the bottom of the rankings.

Meanwhile, LaGrange County typically gets a boost in metrics like the health measures of environment or air pollution, because of its highly rural landscape with a limited number of cars out on the roads.

While Census data can break down data on a lot of different characteristics — race, income, educational attainment, etc. — there is no breakdown collected between Amish and English. Considering that most of America’s Amish population is settled in just a handful of counties predominantly in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania, there’s no push to quantify those groups specifically in a national data set, Bradley said.

That can sometimes make getting a read on LaGrange County’s population and its behaviors and needs a tough job, Bradley said.

Bradley noted county officials had just recently met with Census employees getting ready for the 2020 count this year, and he advised that they may want to do some preemptive outreach to the Amish to ensure everyone gets counted.

“You really need to work with the bishops to get the word out about the census. Counting them can be a challenge at times,” Bradley said.

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