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R.I. Explores the State's Classrooms Using Ambitious Survey Campaign

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Like other states looking to raise achievement, Rhode Island suffers from no lack of tests. The state employs a host of multiple-choice assessments, essay tests, and even an exam on health to gauge student performance.

Robert Hicks

So no wonder the cover of an eight-page questionnaire handed to students last month bore the message: "This is not a test."

This time, it was the learning environment itself that was being measured.

Peter McWalters

The questionnaires are part of an ambitious effort by education officials to survey nearly every public school student, teacher, parent, and administrator in the Ocean State. It is the first such statewide effort to date. The project hasn't been without controversy, but organizers hope it ultimately yields a clear picture both of what is affecting instruction and, more importantly, what is actually going on inside the classroom.

"It will get us data that gets inside the educational process," said Robert Hicks, the superintendent of the 2,100-student Exeter-West Greenwich schools. "It will help us see to what degree we're walking the walk."

Comparing Notes

The effort is part of the state's School Accountability for Learning and Teaching, or SALT, strategy, which the Rhode Island legislature called for in passing an education reform plan last year. ("R.I. May Move To Link School Funding, Accountability," May 14, 1997.)1

Although the plan brings greater scrutiny to test scores, state leaders also wanted to know what teachers were up against, and what they spent time on in their classrooms.

"If you're going to have that kind of an agenda, you need good information that puts the context of the school on the table," said Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters.

"Then," he added, "we ought to be able to set individual targets for schools that are respectful and challenging."

To get that information, the state went to Robert D. Felner, who chairs the education department at University of Rhode Island in Kingston. Mr. Felner has been designing and refining surveys to assess schools' educational practice since the late 1970s.

His assessments have been used extensively by districts in other states--including Illinois and Missouri--and are used by the schools involved in the Carnegie Corporation of New York's Middle Grade School State Policy Initiative.2

But this is the first time an entire state has made a version of the surveys an integral part of its accountability plan.

"Any private-sector firm would say that what we need is good information on what's going on in the learning process from the consumers, the workers, and the product, which are the kids," Mr. Felner said.

Although state officials could not provide an exact figure for how much the project will cost, they said it is being funded with state dollars and federal grants, and that the University of Rhode Island is compiling survey data free of charge.

The Rhode Island Department of Education and the university have distributed the surveys to all of the state's 36 districts, which in turn are getting them out to teachers and parents. Students in grades 4-12 also are filling out surveys.

When the responses are compiled later this spring, schools throughout the state should have a snapshot of educational practice in their classrooms.

For example, the 23-page teacher survey includes an item asking how often "students participate in cooperative learning." Dropping the education-ese, the student survey asks how often "your teachers have you solve problems by working in a group with other students."

In an attempt to find out more about what happens to children outside class, the surveys also ask students if they smoke, how often they eat breakfast, and if their parents help them with homework.

"That's very interesting," Kathy Christie, the information-clearinghouse coordinator at the Education Commission of the States in Denver, said of the Rhode Island survey. "That would lend a lot to school report cards, because a lot of the indicator data collected often isn't thorough or meaningful enough.

"But a survey where researchers are getting into pedagogy and practice--that cuts right to where you need to hear from," Ms. Christie said.

Privacy Concerns

But a few local school leaders say some questions cut too close to home.

"I thought it was pretty much an invasion of privacy," said Glenn H. Brewer, who chairs the board of the 4,500-student North Kingstown schools. "And they're asking them to be informants on their parents."

Mr. Brewer objects especially to items on the student survey that ask if a respondent agrees that "I look ugly" and "I feel like crying every day."

Although researchers say the answers can provide relevant information about students' self-esteem, Mr. Brewer voted against allowing the survey in his district.

A majority of his fellow board members, however, voted for the survey.

The 2,000-student Narragansett system is the only district in the state where a majority of board members initially balked over participating in the survey.

The board, which at first voted against taking part in the effort, relented last week and agreed to participate on the condition that parents be allowed to read the student surveys before their children fill them out.

If they object, the parents can opt to keep their children and themselves from participating in the survey. Participation in the surveys is not mandatory, the state has said, and students across Rhode Island are allowed to opt out.

Previously, the board had cited a state statute forbidding the government from administering surveys that constitute an invasion of privacy.

The board's initial vote against joining the survey prompted Commissioner McWalters to fire off a letter to the district, warning that it risked losing state aid if it did not ensure that the "students and parents in Narragansett have the opportunity to participate in the survey if they wish to do so."

Some teachers, meanwhile, are also leery of the survey, saying they hope it isn't used to paint an image of struggling schools and staffs.

"The concern is," said Amelia D'Aguanno, a 1st grade teacher in the 10,680-student Cranston schools, "is it going to be another thing to show up in the papers and make us look like turkeys again, and we've had enough of that."

State officials say the confidential surveys won't be used to evaluate individual teachers.

Instead, the results will become part of each school's report card, and should be used along with test scores in drafting school improvement plans.

Should state intervention become necessary, state and local officials would also use the survey results to determine how classroom practice needs to change.

"I understand that [concern]," said Ken Fish, the education department's director of school improvement. "But it isn't enough to keep us from doing what we feel to be right."

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