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As Schools Plan for In-Person Learning, They Should Consider Safety Too

After a school year like no other in recent history, students’ behavioral skill development, mental health, and academic learning opportunities were put to the test. As school systems make plans for summer school and going back to in-person learning in the fall, ACT’s research on school safety offers several points for consideration, including the importance of a thorough review of safety measures and student input on those measures.

Before we look at the school safety research, let’s focus for a moment on behavioral skills and how they connect with school safety and educational success.

More than 55 years’ worth of ACT research tells us that students’ behavioral skills are essential for educational success. For example, according to our holistic framework, “behavior tends to predict procrastination, prosocial interactions, aggression, and conduct problems, all of which, in turn, facilitate (or impede) academic performance.”

Student aggression and conduct issues are of particular concern. Research suggests that there may be multiple short- and long-term detrimental effects on students who experience school violence, disruption, and bullying. These include such things as increased anxiety, cognitive processing difficulty, reduced motivation and attention, health issues, learning problems, and lower academic performance as measured by grade point average, standardized test scores, and graduation rates.

Unsafe schools in which violence, disruption, and bullying occur often create a challenging learning environment for many students. We know, from a recent, large-scale analysis of student survey and education record data from more than 700 New York City middle schools, that standardized test scores can be negatively affected in unsafe schools.

Our Study on School Safety and ACT Performance

To test whether this played out on ACT test performance, we invited high school students to share their opinions on the safety of their schools. In our study, which was based on data from nearly 15,000 students who had taken the ACT, we found that several school safety characteristics were positively related to ACT performance.

These include:

  1. not requiring daily metal detector checks before entering the school building;
  2. having school security staff;
  3. explaining school emergency plans to students;
  4. having a perceived low presence of gangs at school; and
  5. having low concerns on the part of students about school safety negatively affecting their ability to learn.

However, the findings were nuanced, in that some characteristics of school safety (e.g., the extent to which students feel welcome and safe at school; teachers’ ability to manage out-of-control students; and whether schools are locked during school hours, have security cameras, and provide mental health services for students) showed no substantive relationship with ACT performance. Additional information is provided in the full report.

Our Recommendations

  1. Schools should implement a thorough review of their safety measures and consider all options, to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach that might be ineffective. The safety review would attempt to consider the overall student experience and not overemphasize how students’ ACT test performance might or might not be affected by school safety characteristics.
  2. Given students’ widely varying perspectives on school safety measures, policymakers, school administrators, and teachers should collect and use student input when deliberating the implementation of such measures.
  3. Those responsible for decisions related to school safety measures should ensure the collection and analysis of local school data, local community data, and detailed survey data from their respective areas to inform their efforts. Although we analyzed some school-level data in our study, there are likely other, local data that would be important for decision makers to access and include in their conversations around safety measures.

It’s clear that school safety cannot be neglected. Along with rigorous academic coursework, it is paramount for students’ educational success and wellbeing.

As educators, researchers, and parents, we are committed to supporting students’ educational development and success. In doing that, we must not only provide opportunities for students to take rigorous academic courses, but also find ways to ensure a safe learning environment. Although there is a lot we can do to support such an environment, its success will also depend, to a considerable degree, on students’ development of positive behavioral skills and the ongoing application of those skills.

ACT believes strongly in helping students to acquire the behavioral skills that can benefit them academically. This is evident in our Mosaic™ suite of social and emotional learning assessments, which includes a measure of students’ perceptions of school safety.

We’ll be sharing more this summer on the effect of COVID-19 on ACT test performance, and how educators, counselors, policymakers, and other stakeholders can keep student perspectives and performance in mind, while planning for learning post-COVID.