Essay Do Active-Shooter Drills Hurt Students?
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An Essay for the Learning Curve
Elc Estrera
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For the past two decades, school shootings have been a constant looming threat for students across the US, with the number of shootings on campuses dramatically increasing in recent years. In response, schools have instituted preparedness and response measures, with one of the most common being school-shooter drills. But educators have raised concerns that these drills might negatively affect student well-being, and students have reported experiencing distress after participating in these drills. Although the data needed to measure the relationship between school-shooter drills and student mental health (and student well-being more broadly) are not readily available, analyzing the impact of drills on accountability outcomes in Arkansas—specifically, attendance rates and proficiency rates on statewide end-of-year tests—can help policymakers understand how they might affect students’ academics.

Key Findings

Data from 2016 through 2019 show the following:

  • In English and math, students in grades three through five who test on the school days immediately after an active-shooter drill have lower proficiency rates than their counterparts who test on the days and weeks before the drill. But proficiency rates return to typical levels as tests are administered in the weeks following the week of the drill.
  • Attendance rates are slightly lower (a 0.09 percent decrease) during quarters when active-shooter drills occur compared with quarters without active-shooter drills.

Implications

Standardized testing is only one measure of academic proficiency, and the decline in scores after active-shooter drills suggests two possible explanations for the impact of these drills on test outcomes. First, active-shooter drills might negatively affect student well-being and, in turn, their performance on tests. This explanation would be consistent with concerns that these drills induce emotional distress—and perhaps trauma—and with studies documenting the negative effects of traumatic events on student performance on tests. Second, participation in an active-shooter drill on the days immediately preceding the test could reduce instructional time that could otherwise be used for test preparation. Recent work shows that interruptions to instructional time, including fire and “intruder” drills, are associated with declines in achievement.

The attendance rate decline is a small difference, and the effect could be attributed to students avoiding school in anticipation of an active-shooter drill or because they avoid returning to school after participating in the drill. Though policymakers should continue their efforts to understand the impact that these drills have on student outcomes, the data on standardized test scores suggests that school leaders should consider avoiding scheduling active-shooter drills on the days before major tests.

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Additional Resources

Research Areas Education
Tags K-12 education
Policy Centers Center on Education Data and Policy
States Arkansas