PARENTING
09/19/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Sep 19, 2014

This State Now Grades Schools On Recess And Health

Stephen Swain Photography via Getty Images

This piece comes to us courtesy of Education Week, where it was originally published.

When parents in Colorado check state-mandated reports to see how their child's school is faring academically, they can also quickly learn if that school has a nurse, if it offers 30 minutes of daily physical activity for students, and if it has a school-based health center.

Though school-level report cards typically feature information about standardized-test scores and student demographics, the Rocky Mountain State also requires schools to report a variety of other factors that affect students' health and wellness.

In a trend that children's health advocates are seeking to promote, a growing number of states and school systems are taking similar actions, integrating health metrics into their school improvement goals and, consequently, into the information they share with the public to boost accountability.

The connections between student health and well-being and academic success are well-understood and supported by a growing body of research, said officials at the Healthy Schools Campaign, an organization that supports increased use of health data in education.

But school programs too often focus largely on proficiency in a narrow set of academic skills, overlooking other efforts that could both boost student health and increase the likelihood of success in the classroom, said Rochelle Davis, the president and chief executive officer of the Chicago-based organization.

"I don't think I've ever met a school administrator who did not understand the importance of health and wellness to academic achievement," Ms. Davis said. "But they are working under accountability structures that are sometimes fairly narrow in terms of scope, and they are not able to make room for and support other elements that are important for a child's health and learning."

Identifying Best Practices

Requiring public reporting of such nonacademic factors will help make them a greater priority for schools and inform parents of efforts that are already in place, proponents said. The National Collaborative of Education and Health--a coalition of organizations led by the Healthy Schools Campaign and the Washington-based Trust for America's Health--plans to meet throughout the fall to identify best practices for what information should be collected and how to best align it with school goals.

"By holding schools accountable for creating environments that are conducive to learning and by providing educators and administrators with a comprehensive understanding of student performance--including how health conditions may directly affect learning--resources could be better deployed to schools and students at greatest risk," says a paper distributed to coalition members in August.

Supporters urge that states and districts ensure that they have the resources to help schools meet health goals before requiring new accountability measures related to them.

The coalition includes educators, public officials, and representatives from a range of educational and public-health organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education, the Data Quality Campaign, the National Education Association, Attendance Works, the National Association of School Nurses, and AASA, the School Superintendents Association. The push to report school health factors dovetails with other recent national efforts to collect and report information about school climate and safety. It's also a first step toward a larger vision of infusing education with health information.

While many states track individual student health and well-being factors--like asthma and body mass index--few track those measures alongside academic indicators in longitudinal data systems. Such coordination could improve research and help identify successful interventions, the Healthy Schools Campaign says.

But privacy advocates, who have questioned the security of state data systems before, urge caution when states opt to add student health information to their collections. States should justify gathering potentially sensitive health information, limit who can access it, and make plans to destroy it after a given period of time, said Khaliah Barnes, the director of the Student Privacy Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.

Existing Efforts

School health-reporting initiatives have already taken root at the state and local level around the country. Since 2003, for example, California schools have surveyed students on a variety of health and school climate issues.

The Chicago school system created a requirement in 2011 that schools report whether they've achieved "Healthy Schools Certification," a designation based on components of the federal HealthierUS School Challenge.

In 2012, Oregon added rates of chronic absenteeism to its model school report card. (Chronic absenteeism is defined as the percentage of students who miss 10 percent or more of school days, whether or not their absences are excused.) The national working group has suggested chronic absenteeism may function well as a "proxy indicator" for health and wellness, because missing school is often related to such issues.

In Nebraska's Lincoln and Kearney districts, educators use health information in "multiple dimensions and multiple ways" to improve schools, said Bob Rauner, a medical doctor and the director of Partnership for Healthy Lincoln, a nonprofit organization that worked with Lincoln schools to develop the approach
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For about five years, Lincoln's district wellness facilitator has tracked students' body-mass-index measurements and scores on the Pacer Test, which measures aerobic fitness levels through endurance in a running exercise.

By tracking correlations between those factors and academic data, Lincoln has found that students' fitness levels have a greater effect on students' test scores than their weight, said Michelle Welch, the district's wellness facilitator.

Local Successes

The data have also helped the district identify successful school strategies to replicate elsewhere, such as building walking trails and requiring daily physical education.

Ms. Welch would like to add a data point to the district's efforts--student scores on Gallup's Hope Index, which uses survey items to measure students' perceptions about the future.

Lincoln schools are also required to report on their own efforts--including how long the last student in line has to eat lunch and recess length, information that is later shared with the public.

After seeing the success of the local efforts, state education leaders began pushing for similar data tracking and reporting statewide, Dr. Rauner said. Proposed legislation failed, in part because of opposition to ending sales tax exemptions for soda, which would have funded the effort. Supporters of data tracking instead organized a voluntary, interlocal organization that will track BMI and fitness data and eventually add other data, such as social-emotional factors. Sixty-two school districts and education service providers have joined.

"It all ties together," said Ms. Welch, the wellness facilitator. "Our big approach is a whole-child approach. We're not raising a bunch of test scores, we're raising a bunch of kids."

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