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The Research Is In

A Fuller Picture of What a ‘Good’ School Is

Promoting relationships and a positive mindset toward learning has a bigger impact on students’ long-term success than raising test scores, new research shows.

January 29, 2021
High school chemistry students work together to create a 3-D model of a molecule.
Allison Shelly/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

Test scores are often touted as an objective way to measure how good a school is. And while this is true to a degree, they don’t tell the whole story. For students who come from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, schools that emphasize the social and emotional dimensions of learning—relationship-building, a sense of belonging, and grit, for example—may do a better job of improving long-term outcomes than schools that focus solely on high test scores.

In a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, C. Kirabo Jackson, a professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, and his colleagues found that schools with robust impacts on student well-being may be helping students in ways that aren’t picked up by standardized tests. These schools may not have the highest test scores, but they’re the most likely to motivate students to graduate and attend college, especially those students who are less likely to do so in the first place.

“Test scores aren’t everything, and schools that promote socio-emotional development actually have a really big positive impact on kids,” Jackson told me. “And these impacts are particularly large for vulnerable student populations who don’t tend to do very well in the education system.”

Working to See the Bigger Picture

This is the latest in a series of studies examining the broad impact that teachers and schools have on students. Jackson’s previous research looked at the impact that teachers had on noncognitive skills such as self-regulation, and found that teachers who improved these skills improved their students’ long-term outcomes, boosting not only grades, but also attendance and high school graduation rates. The skills that are valuable for future success aren’t usually measured on tests, Jackson points out. So while teachers and schools are often evaluated by their ability to improve students’ test scores, broader measures should be used.

In the current study, Jackson and his colleagues looked at over 150,000 ninth-grade students who attended Chicago public schools between 2011 and 2017, analyzing test scores and administrative records. They also examined responses on an annual survey students completed on social and emotional development and school climate. The survey covered a range of topics, including peer relationships, students’ sense of belonging, how hard they studied for tests, and how interested they were in the topics they were studying. The data were then combined into a three-part index: one that included test scores and other academic outcomes, a “social well-being” index, and a “work habits” index.

Jackson's team found that schools that scored high on the latter two indices—those that promoted social and emotional development—were also the most effective at supporting long-term student success. In these schools, there were fewer absences, and more students graduated and went on to college. And perhaps more importantly, the benefits were greatest for student populations who struggled the most in school.

“These results are broadly consistent with studies that have found that psychological interventions, specifically things like belonging interventions, tend to have the largest impacts for lower-income students or underrepresented minorities,” Jackson told me. “So the data that we’re finding are consistent with the idea that these particularly vulnerable populations are the ones that benefit the most from the socio-emotional interventions.”

Why Noncognitive Skills Matter

Although all students benefit from attending high-performing schools, it’s the schools that provide a well-rounded education that drove the differences that Jackson and his colleagues observed. They discovered that a school’s impact on the noncognitive dimensions of learning—healthy relationships and a growth mindset, for example—were much more predictive of long-term success than a school’s impact on test scores.

For example, Jackson found that high schools that were effective at improving students’ feelings of connectedness and belonging had the biggest impact for disadvantaged students, improving their graduation rates by 3.1 percentage points. In contrast, graduation rates for advantaged students at these high schools increased by 0.6 percentage points.

Schools that were effective at raising test scores had a much smaller impact on graduation rates, improving them by 1.8 points for disadvantaged students and 0.2 for advantaged ones.

Disadvantaged students, Jackson told me, “were likely to be relatively lower on the socio-emotional measures” when they started high school. “They were less likely to have strong feelings of belonging in their schools, less likely to have the persistence or academic engagement that students from more affluent homes may have had. So these are the students who would have benefited the most from schools that improve these things.”

So what’s the big takeaway? Some high schools are better than others at fostering healthy relationships and the skills and mindsets—like grit and good study habits—that promote long-term success. So for Jackson, success shouldn’t be measured in terms of test scores alone.

“If you look at people who are successful in life, oftentimes they have attributes that are really positive, in addition to being really smart,” Jackson told me. “They’re very smart, very knowledgeable, but they also seem to be well-adjusted, for the most part. They tend to be engaged, highly motivated. So there are a lot of other traits that aren’t measured by test scores, but if you look at successful individuals, you see that they have those things.”

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  • Assessment
  • Education Equity
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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