Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Student Surveys Seen as Imperfect Engagement Measure

By Holly Kurtz — June 02, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Schools have been using student surveys for decades. But in recent years, increasing interest in student engagement has led to increasing interest in this classic method of assessing belonging, enjoyment, attachment, investment, perseverance, and other assets.

In 2011, the Regional Educational Laboratory Southeast, which was run at the time by the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, produced a report listing 21 different survey instruments designed to measure the engagement of upper-elementary and secondary school students.

This is not to say that all of the measures are widely used or useful.

“Most districts have run surveys and haven’t found them very useful,” said Aaron Feuer, the CEO of Panorama Education, a Boston-based data-analytics startup that raised $4 million in seed money last year from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Startup:Education and other investors.

Surveys don’t necessarily measure what they purport to assess. For example, student course evaluations, a standard and much-criticized fixture of higher education, might be used to assess teaching though they really measure whether students like the instructor, Mr. Feuer suggested.

“Great teaching is not a popularity contest,” he said.

An additional obstacle is that districts often receive results in the form of one enormous data table that is difficult to interpret. As a result, the reports get thrown into a drawer and forgotten.

Panorama addresses that challenge by providing users with individualized, online reports that permit them to break down the results in a variety of ways. For example, The Colorado Education Initiative, a Denver-based nonprofit that collaborates with the state education department and districts and developed a free, publicly available student survey, contracted with Panorama to create reports for Colorado Student Perception Survey that permit teachers to explore results by class period, survey question, student subgroup, and other categories.

The company has developed and distributed surveys in more than 5,000 schools. Clients have included the Los Angeles school district, the Connecticut state education department, and Aspire, which manages 37 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools.

Other Efforts

The Cambridge, Mass.-based Tripod Project for School Improvement, now more than a decade old, developed another survey that is widely used to measure student engagement and evaluate teachers. The survey was administered to more than 1 million students last year.

As part of a three-part series on student surveys presented by the Washington-based nonprofit American Youth Policy Forum in 2013 and 2014, Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy teacher Paul Ronevich said that Tripod helped him improve his instruction by providing specific feedback and permitting him to compare himself with others.

Although surveys may be widely used measures of student engagement, one place where they have failed to take hold is in the accountability systems proposed by states under waivers from the federal No Child Left Behind law. Nearly every state has received a waiver, but only a handful, including New Mexico and South Dakota, have used the opportunity for additional flexibility to incorporate student surveys into accountability measures.

During the American Youth Policy Forum session, Elaine Allensworth, the director of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, shed light on some of the difficulties in publicizing and attaching stakes to surveys. She drew on her experiences with the Chicago 5 Essentials Survey, a survey of students and teachers developed by the consortium to gauge school effectiveness. Although used since 1997, the results were not publicly released until 2009. Consortium researchers worried the publicity would lead principals to game the system by encouraging higher ratings, thus compromising the survey’s validity. However, Ms. Allensworth concluded that the publicity instead led to improvements in the schools.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Get a Strong Start to the New School Year
Get insights and actions from Education Week journalists and expert guests on how to start the new school year on strong footing.
Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

College & Workforce Readiness 'I Didn't Really Learn Anything': Graduates Face College After Pandemic Disruptions
Recent graduates are heading to college after spending much of their high school careers dealing with pandemic upheaval.
5 min read
Angel Hope works on a math problem, part of an intense six-week summer bridge program for students of color and first-generation students at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis., July 27, 2022. Hundreds of thousands of recent graduates are heading to college this fall after spending more than half their high school careers dealing with the upheaval of a pandemic. Hope says he didn't feel ready for college after online classes in high school caused him to fall behind but says the bridge classes made him feel more confident.
Angel Hope works on a math problem as part of an intense six-week summer bridge program for students of color and first-generation students at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, Wis., July 27.
Carrie Antlfinger/AP
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion How to Make College More Affordable? Try the Charter School Model
A new organization is exploring how to make space for new colleges to emerge that also challenge the status quo.
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
College & Workforce Readiness In Their Own Words Stories of Tenacity: 3 First-Generation College-Bound Students Keep Their Dreams on Track
The pandemic upended college plans for more than a million young people, but not these seniors.
6 min read
Araceli Alarcon and Nathanael Severn, seniors at San Luis Obispo High School, pictured in downtown San Luis Obispo, Calif., on June 7, 2022.
Araceli Alarcon and Nathanael Severn, seniors at San Luis Obispo High School, in San Luis Obispo, Calif., will be the first in their families to attend college. While the pandemic complicated their plans, both teenagers persisted in their path to start college this fall.
Morgan Lieberman for Education Week
College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says 5 Ways to Make Online Credit Recovery Work Better for Struggling Students
Seven out of 10 districts use online programs for credit recovery.
5 min read
Image of person's hands using a laptop and writing in a notebook