In a previous post on testing, I wrote that although I heartily endorse expanding our use of data-driven decisionmaking in schools, we must be more sophisticated and deliberate about the data we collect and use. Bubble tests are only going to capture a small portion of the value we add as schools to student learning; the AP test for instance, as pointed out by Tony Wagner, has serious limitations.

So let’s measure the right things– and one of the best things to measure is student engagement. It is important, and it is something independent schools do well, very well, and by measuring it more effectively, we can both demonstrate the relative value independent schools add as compared to other school types, and we can also measure our own school’s relative progress in the direction of ever more effectively engaged students.

My friend, and fellow Klingenstein Fellow, Mark Desjardins pointed me to this survey; he is an outstanding school leader on the project of employing measurements of student learning better than bubble tests. In this entry, I will be making reference to and citing his unpublished paper, on schools’ measuring key 21st century value-add elements. Mark is the Headmaster of Holland Hall School in Tulsa, OK.

The High School Survey of Student Engagement is run at Indiana University. The survey, patterned after a parallel college student survey (NSSE), is intended to “assess the extent to which high school students engage in educational practices associated with high levels of learning and development.” More than 300,000 students participate annually in the survey; tragically, two out three students report being bored at school every single day.

The survey itself is so interesting and so valuable. I appreciate its validation that the student-eye experience is legitimate. High school students are still growing, and we all know they can be immature in judgement, but that doesn’t mean we should consider their view of their education as irrelevant. This survey asks students to report not just whether they are bored at school but whether they are “applying information to new problems or real-life situations,” or organizing/combining ideas to form new meanings/relationships.” It also asks students about whether they have a personal relationship with a teacher who cares about them, whether they have emailed a teacher, and whether they have discussed ideas from class outside of class.

Mark Desjardins’ research at Columbia University came to the strongly research supported conclusion that “The bottom line with the HSSSE research is that it supports the notion that creating an engaged academic climate can ultimately lead to preparing students for success within college environments.” For instance, an article in Psychology in Schools finds that “Research supports the connection between engagement, achievement, and school behavior across levels of economic and social advantage and disadvantage.” And the research by George Kuh, published here in an article entitled “What Student Engagement Data Tell us About College Readiness,” reports that “Students who talk about substantive matters with faculty and peers, are challenged to perform at high levels, and receive frequent feedback on their performance typically get better grades, are more satisfied with college, and are more likely to persist.”

Mark also shared with me some data he has collected, comparing student engagement at his excellent, but also I think representative, independent school, with that of high achievement test scoring suburban public schools, what Mark labels “privileged suburban high schools.” What Mark found was that his school’s students demonstrated dramatically higher levels of student engagement in nearly every category– and most especially at writing and critical thinking.

Mark’s paper also reports his belief that his school may be the only independent school which administers both the HSEE and the CWRA (discussed in my testing posting below), though to Mark’s credit he is diligently working to persuade other schools to join him. I can say here that it is my determined intent to bring both to the next school I lead, and to join Mark in the NAIS benchmarking group he is seeking to develop.