Surveys display highs and lows of student engagement

Student engagement fell to a new average low during the pandemic, the State Department of Education’s latest student survey results show.

But the numbers also illustrate the highs and lows behind the statewide average — and how things like the type of school a student attends can impact the results.

The surveys, which measure students’ levels of curiosity, interest and optimism at school, are one accountability metric state superintendent Sherri Ybarra chose for Idaho’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Administrators from several high-engaging schools point to a range of factors they believe drive their positive responses. Yet leaders at schools that struggled on the survey say it doesn’t account for unique challenges a school might face.

And some question its value altogether.

“The survey is worse than worthless,” Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy principal Dan Nicklay told EdNews, pointing to perceived flaws in the way students are questioned.

Here’s a closer look at the numbers, and varied responses from administrators.

Idaho’s K-12 students took the 21-question engagement surveys in April. Click here for elementary, middle school and high school surveys.

The highs and lows of student engagement

On average, 45.7% of Idaho’s K-12 students reported being engaged at school in 2021. That’s down from 52.6% from the next available year, 2019. But averages don’t often tell the whole story.

Some schools’ numbers topped 80% in 2021. Others didn’t even crack 25%. Here are scores from the top — and bottom — five schools:

Top engagers 

  • Driggs Elementary (Teton County): 82%
  • Teton Elementary (Fremont County): 81.1%
  • Grand View Elementary (Bruneau-Grand View): 80.5%
  • Thatcher Elementary (Grace): 79.6%
  • Howard E. Thirkill Elementary (Soda Springs): 79.1%

Bottom engagers

  • Nampa Senior High (Nampa): 24.8%
  • Black Canyon High (Emmett): 24%
  • Canyon Springs High (Caldwell): 23%
  • Lakeside High (Plummer-Worley): 22.75%
  • Tammany High School (Lewiston): 19.4%

Age impacts outcomes

One blaring difference between the state’s highest and lowest engagers: the age of students they enroll.

While the state’s top five schools are elementary schools, four of the bottom five are high schools and one is a junior-senior high. A similar trend played out in the state’s 2019 survey.

The age-based engagement divide is no surprise for Victor Elementary principal Megan Christiansen, whose school was among those with the highest engagement results in 2021, at 75%. Christiansen couldn’t pinpoint an overall cause for the divide, but said COVID-19 likely played a part.

Older students likely felt more “detached” than their younger peers during school closures and shifts to online learning during the pandemic, she believes.

“The social aspect is just as important as academics for older students,” she said, referencing her son’s detachment from aspects of high school amid local shifts to remote and hybrid learning last school year.

Still, Christiansen pointed to several factors she believes drive engagement at her elementary school, from average class sizes that fluctuate between 18-23 students to “care teams” — learning interventions that emphasize behavioral and emotional factors along with learning factors for struggling students.

Those practices give educators a chance to better know their kids — a key contributor engagement for Christiansen.

“Powerful relationships have everything to do with achievement and growth,” she said.

Mosaics Public School principal and founder Anthony Haskett agrees. His Caldwell-based K-8 charter enrolls some 270 students, and led the statewide pack of 69 charters in terms of engagement, with just under 80% engagement.

Haskett referenced three “factors at play” at his school, including classroom discussion circles aimed at building a sense of “community” for kids and a student council for elementary students, who oversaw service projects, a fundraiser and a contest to name a new school mascot last year.

“Our belief is when kids feel like they belong, they want to come to school,” said Haskett.

A ‘comically flawed instrument’?

It’s hard to pinpoint issues at high schools struggling with engagement. Principals at the two schools with the state’s lowest engagement numbers, Lakeside Junior High and Tammany High, did not respond to questions about their results.

But administrators whose schools saw low and middling outcomes did respond — and either criticized aspects of the survey or dismissed it altogether.

Nicklay called it a “comically flawed instrument.”

“Every year, we administer the engagement survey to our students, and every year, we receive the nonsensical results,” he said. “And every year, I grit my teeth and wonder whether anyone involved in requiring this survey or analyzing its results has any idea what it involves.”

One issue for Nicklay: semantics. He pointed to the word “struggle” in one survey question. Some students might struggle because of lack of motivation — a form of disengagement, he acknowledged. Yet others who are engaged but struggle because they aren’t  “naturally gifted” might not consider themselves engaged.

“On top of that, maybe the kid is taking the survey immediately after a really hard math lesson, and that’s what he’s envisioning as he answers,” Nicklay added.

Just under 42% of Coeur d’Alene Charter’s students reported being engaged, according to the survey.

Engagement was much lower at Richard McKenna Charter School’s online alternative school, which focuses on teaching at-risk students virtually and had just over 26% report being engaged.

Low student engagement at an alternative school makes sense, said principal Dennis Wilson. “Many of our kids come from other districts and are far behind in credits and already disengaged from some standpoint.”

Plus, he said, the pandemic put the skids on getting a reliable amount of feedback to determine student engagement. Only about 6 percent of Richard McKenna’s more than 500 students responded to this year’s survey.

“Maybe it was COVID, but (I’m) not sure because we followed the same process as in years past when over 100 kids responded,” he said.

Christiansen pushed back on the notion that the survey isn’t valuable.

“We just keep it straightforward and tell the kids to answer the questions truthfully,” she said, adding that she views the results from her school as reliable.

Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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