Iowa Proposes Using Student Opinions in ESSA Plan

Published November 4, 2017

ESSA, a bill President Barack Obama signed into law in December 2015 to modify the previous administration’s No Child Left Behind education policy, requires states to submit plans detailing how they will meet requirements under the law. The Iowa Department of Education submitted its plan for federal approval in September 2017, revealing the state intends to use answers from the Iowa Youth Survey (IYS) in calculating school quality.

Students in grades 3–12 will answer IYS questions on “Conditions for Learning,” which include “Safety, Engagement, and Environment.” The Conditions for Learning index will constitute 5 percent of the state’s accountability index across elementary, middle, and high schools in 2018, and it will expand to 18 percent for elementary and middle schools and 8 percent for high schools by 2020.

Youth survey questions regarding safety will focus on physical and emotional safety, with the latter meaning how safe students feel from verbal abuse, teasing, and exclusion. Engagement will include questions about perceived respect for diversity, how well students collaborate, and the extent of student and teacher collaboration. Students will also provide opinions about school expectations and facilities, under the “environment” heading.

‘Students Are Immature’

Shane Vander Hart, editor of the education news website Truth in American Education and a former teacher, says the use of student surveys for such evaluations is a bad idea.

“I don’t want teachers graded on test scores, because I think there are a lot of factors that go into those,” Vander Hart said. “But subjective opinions about how the teacher is teaching from the student’s perspective aren’t going to help. Students are immature. They don’t always see things from the perspective of experience and understanding that goes on in preparing a lesson. How many kids are being honest on these questions, anyway?”

‘All the Rage’

Jane Robbins, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, says her home state of Georgia uses a similar survey, developed by the Georgia Department of Education, the state Department of Public Health, and Georgia State University, to identify “safety and health issues that have a negative impact on student achievement and school climate.” Robbins says such surveys are becoming a fad.

“Student surveys like this are all the rage across the country, a trend bolstered by the ESSA, which encourages schools to include nonacademic measures in their accountability ratings,” Robbins said, quoting from a recent op-ed Robbins had published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

States’ ‘Mother, May I?’

In a recent blog on the topic, Vander Hart stated when ESSA was being debated in Congress, Republicans promised it would provide more flexibility than No Child Left Behind and allow a return to local control. This flexibility is a myth, Vander Hart says, because the U.S. Department of Education has already rejected some state plans.

“Since ESSA required states to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education, we have yet another instance of states coming to the federal government and asking, ‘Mother, may I?'” Vander Hart wrote.

Probing Student Attitudes

The Iowa Youth Survey from 2014 not only questioned students about how they perceive their schools and teachers but also asked them about nonacademic topics such as suicidal thoughts, smoking marijuana, binge drinking, and whether or not it’s against their values to have sex as a teenager.

Robbins says governments should not be asking students about their attitudes and feelings.

“Even if the surveys were valid, young people shouldn’t be exposed to them,” Robbins said. “In a world in which all boundaries of privacy are being erased, students should learn that no one other than their parents or, in some cases, their doctor, has a right to ask such questions, especially not the government. Nor are students’ mindsets and attitudes any of the government’s business.”

Opting Children Out

Leslie Beck, an education activist and member of Iowa RestorEd, says many parents don’t want their children answering such personal questions.

“Most parents are not tracking these issues until the issue is actually affecting their child, but parents who take the time to read the current Iowa Youth Survey will typically opt out their child,” Beck said. “There are four questions asking students about killing themselves, including one on whether they have made a plan to kill themselves. The survey has the potential to normalize these topics and desensitize students even more than they already are.”

Protecting Teachers

Vander Hart says under Iowa’s plan, teachers could be unfairly blamed for circumstances outside their control.

“If a kid isn’t motivated and doesn’t want to study and doesn’t have someone at home making [him or her] study, what’s a teacher to do?” Vander Hart asked. “One of the top indicators for success in school is how involved parents are in a positive way. A kid without parental involvement finds it just that much harder to succeed in school regardless of standards, tests, and even teachers. If they’re handicapped in that way, it’s going to be just that much harder for a kid to succeed.”

Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.