Do kids like school?

The only way to know is to ask them, and that’s the aim of surveys conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NAEP, a test known as “the nation’s report card” because it is seen as the most consistent nationally representative measure of U.S. student achievement since the 1990s.

The NAEP is administered every two years to groups of U.S. students in the fourth and eighth grades, and less frequently to high school students — with math and reading exams administered every two years and assessments in science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, technology and engineering literacy, and U.S. history less often.

Along with actual exam questions, surveys are attached to assess student attitudes about different parts of their educational experience. On the reading test, for example, kids might be asked how often they read for fun.

In this post, Indiana University mathematics education professor Sarah Lubienski looks at some of the data from the recently released 2017 test results about how happy students are at school. Some of the results may surprise you.

By Sarah Lubienski

The achievement results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released in April, received much attention. However, a lesser-known aspect of NAEP is its survey of students’ experiences and attitudes, including two new questions about students’ happiness and sense of belonging at school. Although such aspects are not often the focus of NAEP analyses, they merit attention. And they are underscored by a recent study in Pediatrics journal indicating a major rise in children’s hospitalization related to suicide, with incidents most likely to occur during school months, and with increases larger for girls than for boys.

With its large, nationally representative samples, the latest NAEP survey results can help us take stock of U.S. students’ sense of well-being in school. The 2017 NAEP contained separate math and reading samples, but for simplicity, here I focus on data from the nearly 300,000 fourth- and eighth-graders who took the mathematics assessment.

Are U.S. students happy at school?

The extent to which students are happy at school depends on whether we look at students in fourth or eighth grade. While about half of fourth graders (49 percent) say they are happy in school “all or most of the time,” 26 percent of eighth graders say this (Table 1).

Still, the majority of students at both grades say they are happy more than half the time, and the percentage of students who are “never or hardly ever” happy at school holds steady at 7 percent for both grades.

 Some scholars and parents have argued that schools are biased against boys because girls are better able to sit and work diligently. The data is mixed on whether boys or girls are happier. At grade 4, more girls (75 percent) than boys (66 percent) report being happy at school over half the time, but in grade 8, significantly more boys (59 percent) than girls (54 percent) report this.

Do U.S. students feel awkward at school?

The NAEP survey asked students if they “felt awkward and out of place” at school. Unlike with happiness and popular conceptions of middle school as a time of awkward adolescence, there is no strong tendency to feel less comfortable at school in grade 8 than in grade 4. However, as with happiness, we again see a slight negative progression for girls, with 57 percent of girls reporting they never or hardly ever feel awkward during grade 4 but 46 percent of girls reporting this at grade 8 (Table 2).

Findings for Students of Color

Given concerns about the marginalization of students of color, it makes sense to examine the NAEP survey data by race and ethnicity. The results reveal a similar pattern of decline from the fourth-grade to the eighth-grade samples, regardless of race or ethnicity (Table 3). However, Hispanic and Asian students tended to report significantly greater happiness in school than other groups at grade 4.  However, few significant differences occurred in the eighth-grade sample, although Asian students (4 percent) were significantly less likely than others (7 to 11 percent) to report “never or hardly ever” being happy at school.

Black, Hispanic, and American Indian and Alaskan Native fourth-graders were significantly more likely than white and Asian fourth-graders to say they felt awkward and out of place “all or most of the time” and significantly less likely to say they “never or hardly ever” felt out of place. Most strikingly, black fourth-graders (15 percent) were more than twice as likely as white fourth-graders (7 percent) and three times as likely as Asian fourth-graders (5 percent) to report feeling awkward and out of place “all or most of the time.” However, at grade 8, this pattern did not hold.

A closer look at differences in fourth-grade feelings of awkwardness by race

Given that black fourth-graders were particularly likely to report feelings of awkwardness, and given that white students are most likely to attend school with teachers and students who look like them, it makes sense to further examine black-white differences in feeling awkward at school.

The NAEP data indicate that students eligible for subsidized lunch (12 percent) are twice as likely as ineligible students (6 percent) to report feeling awkward or out of place “all or most of the time.”

Black students are more likely than white students to be eligible for subsidized lunch because of their family’s low income, but as shown in Table 5, black-white differences in feeling awkward at school persist within the lunch-eligibility categories, with ineligible black students (11 percent) more than twice as likely as ineligible white students (5 percent) to report feeling awkward in school.  Hence, black-white differences in feeling out of place in school do not seem to simply be the result of family economic differences.

One might suspect that black-white differences in awkwardness at school are the result of black students’ constituting a minority of students in the school. However, black students report more awkwardness in schools with more than 50 percent black students than in other schools (Table 6).

Surprisingly, white students report feeling less awkward in school, even in those containing more than 50 percent black students.

Hence, there appears to be something about the experiences of black students in elementary schools, regardless of the student composition of those schools, that is making these children feel out of place at school.


The data show a stark decline in happiness in school from grade 4 to grade 8, along with a lesser sense of belonging in elementary schools among black students that is not explained by student poverty or school racial composition.

Teachers and administrators in elementary schools that serve these students and those in middle schools across the board appear to need additional resources and support to create a sense of belonging among students. The data also suggest that girls, in particular, may need additional socio-emotional supports as they progress from grades 4 to 8.

These data hold an additional implication regarding school desegregation. Some might wonder whether a downside of desegregation is that black students feel more awkward in schools with relatively few black students. These data suggest otherwise, removing one potential argument against school desegregation.