Law & Courts

Seattle Student Survey’s Race Questions Stir Controversy

By Michelle Galley — May 22, 2002 2 min read
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Many schools in the Seattle district have decided to destroy the answer sheets from a recent student survey, after some parents and teachers raised objections about the nature of several questions.

Some called the survey offensive because it dealt with how students interact with children of other races and how their skin color affects their relationships with teachers.

It also asked students to agree or disagree with the statement, “In my school there are posters, books, and magazines with pictures of people my color.”

The surveys, which were given to students in grades 3-11 but had different questions for elementary school and secondary students, also queried elementary school pupils on their attitudes toward bringing weapons to school, cheating, and stealing. Most schools conducted the survey earlier this spring.

In addition to the 44 questions, the district also collected information about individual students answering the questionnaires, including their names, grade levels, and student identification numbers, which can be linked to sensitive information such as a students’ disciplinary histories and what schools they attend.

Differing Views

The Seattle Education Association and the Washington American Civil Liberties Union have lodged complaints with the district over the survey.

Some members of the teachers’ union, the local affiliate of the National Education Association, called the survey racist.

Several questions, such as whether students feel safe at school, or have ever been “bothered, made fun of, or hurt by other students” were included to gauge schools’ climate, said Michael O’Connell, the director of research for the 47,000-student district.

The survey was intended to give administrators “a fuller, more detailed appreciation for how kids were feeling and reacting to their school situations,” he said.

“We were never trying to target a particular child and ask him why he filled in a certain bubble,” he added.

As a result of the controversy, district officials have told school administrators that they don’t have to give the survey and can destroy answer sheets from the questionnaires that have already been administered.

District officials said that 70 percent of the 30 secondary schools and 100 elementary schools that have given the survey have opted to destroy the answer sheets.

The school system has been surveying students since 1994. But this was the first year it asked questions relating to race and safety, Mr. O’Connell said.

Results from past surveys have been used in the school accountability process, helping administrators to determine school effectiveness, he said.

But because of the criticism this year, he added, district officials won’t factor survey results into the accountability scoring system.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 2002 edition of Education Week as Seattle Student Survey’s Race Questions Stir Controversy

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