Assessing Student Engagement

Spring 2014

By Amada Torres

NAIS and the NAIS Commission on Accreditation recently launched a three-year pilot study on the use of the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) among independent schools. HSSSE, administered by Indiana University, is a survey designed to investigate the attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs of high school students about their work.

The pilot goals included helping independent schools assess their effectiveness in providing social/emotional support for academic success, developing a way for schools to comply with learning assessment standards without using standardized achievement tests, and capturing data that shows the value-added experience of independent school education.

Fifty-four NAIS-member schools signed up for the three-year commitment and in the spring of 2013, 13,493 high school students from 19 states participated in the first year of the pilot.

Each participating school received its individual results and NAIS received a report with the aggregated results of more than 100 indicators corresponding to the three dimensions of engagement measured by HSSSE:

  • cognitive/intellectual/academic engagement, or "engagement of the mind";
  • social/behavioral/participatory engagement, or "engagement in the life of the school"; and
  • emotional engagement, or "engagement of the heart."

Some of the indicators in cognitive/intellectual/academic engagement included students' opinions on their schools' contributions in developing the students' essential skills. For instance, 64 percent of the independent school students surveyed indicated that their schools have contributed "very much" to their writing skills, compared with 31 percent reported by public school students. Similarly, 61 percent of the independent school students surveyed mentioned that their schools contributed "very much" to their critical thinking, compared with 29 percent of students from public schools.

HSSSE data also indicated that students like to be intellectually challenged. A majority of the independent school students surveyed strongly agreed that they enjoy discussions with no clear answers (68 percent), as well as assignments that demand a lot of thinking and mental effort (71 percent). Similarly, about three-fifths of students from public schools mentioned liking this type of schoolwork (58 percent in each case). Moreover, 65 percent of the independent school students surveyed reported giving their maximum effort in most or all of their classes, while another 68 percent declared that most or all of their classes challenge them to their full academic potential. These results for public school students were 51 percent and 38 percent, respectively.

In terms of kinds of learning, "discussions and debates" as well as "projects involving technology" topped the independent school students' list as being the ones that interest students in independent schools.

Students also shared information on their academic goals and plans for the future. Seventy-three percent of the independent high school students indicated "to go to school because they wanted to graduate and go to college," compared with 57 percent of students in public schools. When asked about the highest level of education they expected to complete, 96 percent of the independent school students and 77 percent of the public school students mentioned a four-year college education or higher.

One of the indicators measuring social/behavioral/participatory engagement was the number of hours students spent in school-sponsored activities. Sixty percent of the independent school students reported four hours or more of participation in school-sponsored activities, compared with 41 percent of public school students.

Not surprisingly, a vast majority of students agreed that they go to school because they want to be among friends or because it's their parents' wish. However, 57 percent of the independent school students also stated that they go to school because of their teachers, compared with 36 percent of the public school students.

Finally, HSSSE offers insights regarding students' connection to the school. Eighty-two percent of the independent school students agreed that their opinions are respected in their schools; 78 percent indicated that, if they could choose a high school, they would choose their current one; and 93 percent said that, overall, they feel good about being in their school. The results for public school students were 59 percent, 56 percent, and 82 percent, respectively. A large percentage of students also said they feel supported by their teachers (94 percent of the independent school students vs. 83 percent of the public school students) and feel safe at their schools (95 percent of the independent school students vs. 82 percent of the public school students).

While students constitute the primary beneficiaries of the services offered by schools, they are rarely asked for their feedback beyond the occasional class evaluation. The HSSSE pilot offers an interesting glimpse of student views regarding the teaching and learning practices in their schools-especially what motivates and engages them. Schools involved in the pilot survey will certainly have enough information to better understand and strengthen student engagement.

How Are We Doing?

As part of an NAIS pilot study using the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) to assess independent school student experiences, compared with their public school counterparts, students responded to the following prompt by answering "very much":

How Much Has Your Experience at This School Contributed to:
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Author
Amada Torres

Amada Torres is vice president for studies, insights, and research at NAIS.