As schools face a student mental health crisis, some experts fear that a growing resistance to collecting data about child well-being could jeopardize key efforts to protect kids.
Florida officials notified the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March that the state would no longer administer an anonymous, voluntary, biennial survey centered on issues of child well-being. Two other states—which CDC officials would not name—have had recent preliminary discussions about withdrawing from the state-level data collection, known as the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, said Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health.
“For us, the more data points we have in terms of health and well-being, including mental health, the better positioned we are to try to understand and try to respond to the mental health crisis that we are seeing in this country among young people,” Ethier said. “Data isn’t the only answer, but without the data, we are in the dark.”
The concerns come as schools around the country face scrutiny over a variety of locally administered student surveys on subjects like school climate and social-emotional learning. Parents have objected to questions, even anonymous ones, about students’ sexual orientation, and some conservative political groups argue that schools’ efforts around child well-being may teach children values that differ from their parents.
A survey gauges student well-being, behaviors
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey asks high school students about issues like bullying, suicidal thoughts, drug use, sexual behavior, exposure to violence, and risk-taking activities, like texting while driving.
The CDC issues a version of the survey to a random sample of students around the country to track national progress on those issues. With Florida’s departure, 45 states now use federal grants to administer separate, state-level versions of the survey, which allow them to add or remove questions and track more local data. For example, some states omit questions about students’ sexual behaviors, Ethier said.
Those statistics allow states to see how policy changes or local events correlate with changing student responses, to compare themselves to other states, and to build a case for programs and grants, Ethier said.
In a March 16 letter to the CDC, Florida officials did not say why the state planned to withdraw from the survey, which it has issued since 1991.
In an email response to questions from Education Week, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education said the state planned to conduct its own surveys without the federal grant.
“Rather than continue with a generic nationwide survey, our intent is to improve our data collection efforts to make the survey specifically tailored to Florida’s unique needs,” wrote Cassie Palelis, the agency’s press secretary.
She did not respond to follow-up questions about who would design the new survey, whether the state had concerns about any specific questions on the CDC questionnaire, or how officials would assure resulting data could be compared with previous years to measure trends.
Tracking the effects of new legislation
By changing surveys, Florida’s school mental health personnel are concerned that the state will lose its ability to accurately measure the effects on students’ behaviors of issues like the pandemic and a new Florida law about how schools discuss sex and sexuality, said Angela Mann, president of the Florida Association of School Psychologists.
Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March, prohibits teachers from providing classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” to kindergarten through 3rd-grade students. Its supporters say it will help preserve parents’ rights to shape their children’s views on sexuality and gender. Opponents say it harmfully stigmatizes LGBTQ students, teachers, and families.
“My fear is that if the state decides to do its own survey, we lose the richness of all of that data,” Mann said. “Withdrawing from the survey comes at a really awful time. There’s reason to believe that some of our more-vulnerable youth who face marginalization will potentially be harmed even more and go undetected and underserved.”
It’s unusual for a state to withdraw from the CDC survey after participating for decades. Three states—Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota—do not participate. Those states issue long-running surveys of their own after dropping out of the CDC survey years ago or never having participated in the first place.
Most recently, Wyoming officials ended participation in the state-level Youth Risk Behavior Survey after the state’s legislature passed a bill directing them to do so in 2016, citing concerns about the questions including in the questionaire.
In the years since, Wyoming lawmakers have killed legislative amendments that would have restored the state’s participation, citing questions about issues like students’ sexual history in debates over the issue.
“I’m not going to read those questions because I think it’s very distasteful, and yet that’s what we’re exposing our high schoolers and middle schoolers to,” Rep. Scott Clem, a Republican, said in a 2020 debate, according to the Wyoming Business Journal.
Issues ‘are not going away’
Wyoming Democrats who backed participation said the issues the survey measures “are not going away,” and that the data could help direct funding for prevention efforts.
Ethier, of the CDC, stressed that the surveys are anonymous and that data is analyzed at a broad, population level. No action is taken with individual students based on their responses, and responses cannot be traced back to individual students.
The survey questions are also reviewed by participating states and vetted by data scientists to ensure students can understand them and answer them consistently to ensure the most accurate data possible, she said.
There is a “large body of research” that shows asking students about risky behaviors does not pose danger or encourage them to take risks themselves, Ethier said.
“The most important thing for all of us is that this generation of young people emerges into adulthood in as healthy a way possible,” she said. “Unless we know what’s happening … we can’t make sure we are taking the right steps to help them do that.”