Student Well-Being

New Inquiry to Measure Student Engagement

By Debra Viadero — January 21, 2004 3 min read
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A group of Indiana University researchers is looking for high schools to take part in a first-of-a-kind national survey aimed at finding out how connected teenagers are to their schools and to learning.

“If you improve students’ engagement, you’re going to improve students’ learning, and that is going to improve the lives of students later on,” said Martha M. McCarthy, the director of the new High School Survey of Student Engagement, which researchers are hoping to launch this spring.

Information on registering for the survey, “High School Survey of Student Engagement,” is available from Indiana University, Bloomington.

Like commercial standardized tests, the new study will give schools and districts results for their own students and show how those findings compare with national norms. Unlike those achievement-oriented tests, however, the survey seeks to get beyond what students know to find out more about their behavior and day-to-day learning experiences. It asks students, for example, how much time they spend on homework, whether any teachers have mentored them outside class, and whether they read for pleasure on their own time.

“This tells you parts of the school experience that can easily be changed to improve students’ engagement,” said Ms. McCarthy, who is also a professor of educational leadership and law at the university, in Bloomington, Ind. “If you find out your students are only writing two papers a year that are three pages or more long, that’s certainly something you can change.”

Asking Questions

The survey is modeled on the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is also based at Indiana University. Begun in 1999, that survey has been given to more than 425,000 college students. With help from high school teachers and administrators, university researchers tweaked questions from the existing survey to better fit high school students.

“It asks questions and probes into areas that virtually no one else has done,” said Timothy F. Hyland, the high school superintendent for the Glenbard, Ill., schools. His 8,800-student high school district, located in the western suburbs of Chicago, test-piloted the survey last year.

He said school officials there were surprised to learn that 15 percent of the teenagers surveyed answered no to a question asking them whether they would come back to Glenbard’s schools if they had to repeat their high school experience.

“We’re a high-performing suburban school system, and that caught a lot of people off guard,” Mr. Hyland said of that response.

The survey also showed that students had few contacts with faculty members outside the classroom. In response, the school system installed an e-mail system in its four high schools that enables students to write to the teachers in their buildings and vice versa. Students can also e-mail the superintendent.

“We’ve got all the math and reading scores, but we didn’t have anything of any reliability on the affective attitudes of our students,” Mr. Hyland said.

He said the district hopes to continue the survey on an annual basis now in order to accumulate some longitudinal data on its students.

Districts such as Glenbard that take part in the study will have to pay a fee. The rates begin at $750 for schools with fewer than 750 students and $1,500 for schools in the 1,000-to-2,000-student range.

Indiana University’s college of education supports other administrative costs for the study now, but researchers are hoping to attract foundation funding for more expanded administrations of the survey. This spring’s survey will include 100 schools.

The deadline for schools to register for the study is Feb. 15.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as New Inquiry to Measure Student Engagement


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