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Published February 9, 2021


UB GSE professor says U.S. schools receive a C in reimagined Nation’s Report Card

The focus on standardized test scores fail to account for socioemotional and physical development

If the Nation’s Report Card was reimagined to include physical and emotional health, in addition to academics, the United States would receive a C, said UB GSE educational policy expert Jaekyung Lee.

The Nation’s Report Card, an annual report formerly known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, is widely considered the benchmark tool to measure U.S. student achievement.

But the report is solely focused on standardized test scores and fails to account for children’s socioemotional and physical development, both of which strongly correlate to academic performance, said Lee, a professor of counseling, school and educational psychology.

“It is high time that we redesign the Nation’s Report Card and transition away from a narrow focus on academic achievement to a more balanced and holistic system that promotes health and emotional growth as well,” he said. “Under the current pandemic crisis, this transformation is more of an imperative than ever before.”

Filling in the gaps

Only 30 percent of students met expectations for balanced cognitive, emotional and physical development, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten. Those who did meet expectations were more likely to be white and socioeconomically advantaged.

Although the Nation’s Report Card focuses on student standardized achievement test performance — a trend influenced by government policies, according to previous research by Lee — the report still provides insights into how student achievement has changed over time, in various subject areas, and in states and districts across the country.

To fill in the gaps, Lee proposes merging NAEP data with information from the National Survey of Children’s Health, or NSCH, which provides comprehensive data about child health and well-being, but no information on achievement.

Lee compiled data from a 2015 NAEP survey of nearly 140,000 students in each of the fourth and eighth grades, and a 2016 NSCH survey of nearly 140,000 households to form a single comprehensive report, which he described in a recent Phi Delta Kappan article.

The reimagined Nation’s Report Card has grades for academic proficiency in reading, math, science and social studies and socioemotional wellness, which includes engagement in school, curiosity for learning and ability to handle challenges, and in physical health as measured by healthy weight, exercise frequency and physical challenges.

Grades for each category were based on the percentage of students who succeeded or met expectations. Combined, the scores form a whole child grade.

Lee also used NSCH data to create a whole community index that highlights factors within families and communities that may give context to student performance in school and on tests—including bullying, school and neighborhood safety, traumatic childhood experiences, and having a supportive family and neighborhood.

Low scores in academics, emotional health

According to the reimagined report, only half of U.S. students are doing well academically, socially and physically, resulting in a C average, said Lee.

Schools received a B+ for physical health, C for socioemotional wellness and a D for academic proficiency. Grading at the state level varied from a B+ to a D-. No state received an A.

For all 50 states, there were positive connections with academic proficiency, physical health and socioemotional wellness. Rather than prioritizing one area at the expense of others, states can pursue all three simultaneously, said Lee. There was also a strong positive relationship between the whole child grades and the whole community index, regardless of race and income level.

“Schools alone aren’t responsible for student outcomes. States where students live in a protective and nurturing family-school-neighborhood environment are more likely to produce more physically and emotionally healthy and high-achieving students,” said Lee. “It really does take a whole community to raise a whole child.”

A Nation’s Report Card reimagined this way could provide governments, educators and families with the information necessary to improve student outcomes, he said.

“This broader approach to understanding which schools and communities are serving their children well will enable us to extend their success into more communities, helping more children become healthier, happier and smarter,” Lee said.

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