Student engagement varies widely across Idaho

On average, 65.2 percent of Idaho’s K-8 students are considered to be engaged in school, according to results of a first-year survey conducted by the State Department of Education.

When you narrow the group to middle school students in grades 6-8, an average of less than 58 percent of Idaho students are engaged in the classroom.

Student engagement is a new metric that Idaho education officials are tracking. It’s important because state education leaders chose to build it into the state’s new accountability plan.  Student engagement at the K-8 level was also one of several factors used to calculate the list of the Idaho’s lowest-performing schools.

Student engagement refers to the degree of attention and interest children show when they are learning or being taught. Engaged students are more likely to perform well on standardized tests and are less likely to drop out of school, researchers from the National Association of Independent Schools found.

Engagement varies widely from district to district, but Madison School District is home to two of the top schools in the state. At Hibbard Elementary, 82.1 percent of students were engaged, according to the survey. At Kennedy Elementary, 83.8 percent of students are engaged — the highest level of any public school in Idaho.

Geoffrey Thomas

Madison Superintendent Geoffrey Thomas said high student engagement is a byproduct of a districtwide philosophy of putting families first.

“One of our themes we have in the district is parents are our customer, because a customer is someone who can take their money elsewhere,” Thomas said. “We want our customers to feel like we are the schools of choice.”

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In Madison, customer service involves inviting parents into the classroom for regular math or literacy nights. It means morning donuts with dads or muffins with moms. And it means welcoming parents’ questions, not keeping families at arm’s length.

“We want people to feel they are welcome, and their input is important,” Thomas said.

Kennedy Principal Shane Williams was surprised to learn his school had the highest level of student engagement among all public schools. But when he was asked about the culture and climate of his school, he spoke of shared accountability and embracing a growth mindset.

“Even though students are in different classrooms, all teachers take ownership for students,” Williams said. “It’s not ‘my kids,’ it’s ‘our kids.’”

Kennedy is in its second year of using an online communication tool that lets parents connect directly with teachers through their phones or an online web portal.

Williams also said he has personally hired about 85 percent of the staff, which is very close knit and works well with the administration.

“I’m open with my teachers and I don’t expect anything from them I’m not willing to do,” Williams said. “In return, I don’t want (teachers) to ask student to do anything (they’re) not willing to do.”

Where did the data come from?

The findings came from the State Department of Education’s student engagement surveys.

The federal Every Student Succeed Act required state officials to include both academic and school quality indicators in its compliance plan. An early proposal for Idaho’s accountability plan called for tracking absenteeism or chronic absenteeism — but education groups and teachers pushed back strongly against using that indicator.

Following the pushback, the State Board of Education approved the accountability plan with student engagement, not absenteeism, as one of the indicators.

The state measures engagement via a survey produced by AdvaceED, which also handles accreditation in Idaho.

Last year, the state asked students in grades 3-8 to complete the 20-question survey to determine how engaged they are at school. The survey asks questions like “The activities I do in class are…” Then the student can choose to answer:

  • “are ones I like.”
  • “are done because my teachers make me.”
  • “are not fun.”
  • “are not fun but I do them anyway.”

“are not fun, so I pretend that I am sick so that I don’t have to do them.”

The survey questions are available online through the State Board of Education (scroll down to Tab 4, Page 1 to begin reading the surveys).

What are the findings?

Some trends jump out from the Idaho student engagement surveys (A spreadsheet containing student engagement data from more than 400 schools is available online from the SDE. Scroll down to “2018 accountability data” and click on the student engagement tab to download the spreadsheet).

  • In 12 of the 15 lowest-performing schools as identified by the state, student engagement was below the state average.
  • Only two of the K-8 schools on the low-performing list had more than 70 percent of students who were engaged, based on the state’s survey.

At Lakeside Middle School in Plummer-Worley, just 31.7 percent of students were engaged — the lowest level of engagement at any school in Idaho.

“We have been working for years to try to understand how to increase student engagement,” Superintendent Judi Sharrett said.

Sharrett said a district leadership team will attend state meetings for low-performing schools this month. She said she’s eager to learn what technical support the state will provide, and to leverage those resources into increased partnerships with the community and Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

“We are a small district with relatively limited resources and do our best to offer everything we can to our students,” Sharrett said.

At Hollister Elementary in Filer, student engagement was 45.8 percent, the lowest level of a school not on the lowest-performing schools list. Filer Superintendent John Graham said the survey results give district administrators one more piece of insight into what’s going on at school. But he expressed concern that the survey was administered while his young students were taking standardized tests, which he said could have led to student fatigue or frustration.

He also said the results are not yet specific enough to make a real difference.

“It doesn’t help really arrow in on any specific concern or areas to focus our improvements on, other than overall (engagement),” Graham said.

How is the state using the data?

Karlynn Laraway, the SDE’s director of assessment and accountability, said AdvancEd makes the survey questions and results available to all superintendents and building principals.

Student engagement counted as 10 percent of the weighting for the formula determining the lowest-performing schools list. Engagement will also appear on the school report cards that are scheduled to be released in December.

Other than that, administrators are not required to do anything with the new data.

Laraway said the engagement data is valuable as one of several indicators that give insight into school quality and school climate. But engagement alone is not a silver bullet and does not tell the whole story about a school.

“It’s one point of information,” Laraway said. “We want (administrators or educators) to look at this in relationship to what you know about your school that the rest of us don’t, that this compliments or this information contradicts.”

What happens next

Beginning this school year, the SDE will administer parent and teacher surveys for accountability purposes. On Friday, representatives of the Idaho Parent Teacher Organization, Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho School Boards Association and Idaho Education Association will meet with staff from the State Board of Education and SDE to review survey questions, according to the SDE’s weekly e-newsletter.

Then, those groups will share drafts of the recommendations and ask for feedback before bringing the recommendation to the State Board for consideration during a December meeting.

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