School & District Management

New Student-Survey Policy Worries Some Researchers

By Debra Viadero — February 27, 2002 7 min read
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When Linda Rogowski got hold of the survey that Barker, N.Y., school officials were planning to administer to students in her daughter’s middle school, she was horrified.

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse (‘gone all the way,’ ‘made love’)?” the survey asked. “How often do you binge eat (eat a lot of food in a short period of time) and then make yourself throw up or use laxatives to get rid of the food you have eaten?”

Besides intruding on her family’s privacy, such questions might put ideas into the head of her impressionable 11-year-old, Ms. Rogowski worried.

“Some students might start to feel some of these behaviors are normal,” the upstate New York mother said.

Such concerns are at the heart of a little-publicized provision of the newly revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, signed into law by President Bush last month. The legislation requires school districts to formulate policies for notifying parents—and for protecting families’ privacy—when students are asked to take part in surveys that contain questions about their sexual activities, their political beliefs and religious practices, and a variety of other sensitive topics.

Researchers are afraid, though, that the provision could cripple some of what they do in schools.

“Schools are really the best place where we get a window on what’s going on in adolescents’ lives,” said Lloyd D. Johnston, the principal investigator for the “Monitoring the Future” program, a federally financed study intended to take a national pulse on students’ drug use each year. “It’s just as important for parents as it is for researchers to have good information.”

Policymakers have debated for decades how to strike the right balance between the interests of science and the privacy rights of individual parents and students. A federal law passed in 1974, for example, requires that all proposals for federally subsidized studies involving human subjects be screened by institutional review boards, most of which are based at universities. Made up of scientists and community members, the boards determine whether the research meets ethical standards and federal guidelines.

The bar is even higher for studies underwritten by the U.S. Department of Education. Under a 1994 amendment to the Pupil Privacy Protection Act, school districts planning to use department funds to give students surveys containing personal questions have to get parents’ permission first.

More recently, a new state law in New Jersey extended the same requirement to any sensitive survey research taking place in that state’s public schools. (“N.J. Requires Permission for Student Surveys,” Jan. 23, 2002.) Researchers say it’s not that they’re against letting parents know that their children are being asked personal questions. It’s all in how parents are notified.

The standard procedure is for schools to ask parents to let them know if they want their children to opt out of a survey—a mechanism known as “active dissent” or “passive consent.” Both the New Jersey law and the law governing research financed by the federal Education Department, in contrast, require schools to obtain parents’ written permission or “active consent” before students can take part.

The fear is that the new federal law, while not specifying one form of consent or another, will prompt more school districts to choose the latter.

“Just because the federal government isn’t imposing a written-consent requirement doesn’t mean that most school districts won’t,” said Patricia C. Kobor, a senior science-policy analyst with the Washington-based American Psychological Association. “With all this conservative attention on the issue, schools are going to give the benefit of the doubt to parents.”

Conservative groups active on family issues have long been especially vocal in advocating parents’ right to exempt children from surveys on sensitive topics.

Getting It in Writing

Scholars say the problem with “active consent” requirements is that many parents—typically, 20 percent to 30 percent, according to studies—fail to return the permission forms. That can wreak havoc with researchers’ study samples and cause investigators to drop some schools with particularly meager response rates from their research altogether.

“Most parents don’t object at all. They just don’t send the form back,” said Ms. Kobor, who led a coalition of national research and education groups that has been active on the issue.

With the opt-out forms, in comparison, only 1 percent to 2 percent of parents decline to let their children participate.

“We also know those are not random percentage points that get lost” in the active-consent process, added Mr. Johnston, who is a distinguished research scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. His own studies suggest that the students who fail to return their forms disproportionately come from high-risk homes or minority families—the groups researchers often need to study the most.

Opt-Out Option

The opt- out technique doesn’t, however, satisfy parents such as Ms. Rogowski, who oppose the surveys.

“I think some parents are afraid to opt out for fear their kid might be singled out,” she says. “I would like parents to be able to write, ‘No, I don’t give permission,’ or ‘Yes, I give permission.’ ”

In the end, officials in Ms. Rogowski’s district, the Barker Central schools, decided to drop 6th graders from their survey sample and give the survey only to 8th and 10th graders. Stephen J. La Rock, the superintendent of the rural, 1,200- student district, said parents were notified three times and given a choice of opting out.

The survey that caused concerns in that community is published by the Search Institute, a nonprofit organization in Minneapolis. Taken anonymously, the survey is intended to give communities baseline data on teenagers’ needs, strengths, and problems.

The same questionnaire ignited parent protests two years ago in Ridgewood, N.J., where the matter is the subject of an ongoing court battle.

At the national level, Ms. Rogowski’s views are echoed by the organizations that have led the decades-long movement to erect more privacy protections around school-based research.

“It’s been our belief that parents know best how to introduce sensitive subjects to children,” said Kristina Twitty, an education policy analyst for Eagle Forum, a Washington- and Illinois-based group active in that effort. “Parents know better than the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health how to address these issues with their children.”

To the Eagle Forum and like-minded groups, the new parent-notification provision in the “No Child Left Behind” Act renewing the ESEA represents a “half a loaf.”

Earlier versions of the bill, much like the New Jersey law, would have been more restrictive, requiring written parental consent before doing any kind of survey research involving personal and controversial topics. Groups such as the Eagle Forum wanted to keep it that way.

The law now specifies only that “at a minimum,” parents should have the option of keeping their children out of studies.

Besides questions about students’ sexual behavior, political beliefs, and religious practices, queries that focus on illegal actions or mental or physical problems could trigger the parental-notification requirements in the new federal law. And questions that critically appraise people with close ties to a student’s family also raise a red flag.

The law now requires schools to let parents know when they collect or disclose personal information on students for commercial purposes, or when they plan to conduct certain types of medical procedures. Parents would not have to be notified beforehand, however, when students take part in studies aimed at developing or evaluating educational programs or practices.

The legislation’s exact requirements won’t be completely clear until the federal government issues more formal guidelines in the months ahead.

Researchers note with some irony that the new requirements come at a time when federal policymakers are calling for big improvements in the quality of educational research, according to Gerald E. Sroufe, the interim executive director of the 23,000-member, Washington-based American Educational Research Association.

“This is going to make doing that kind of research even more difficult,” he said.

Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as New Student-Survey Policy Worries Some Researchers


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