Who Is Using Personal Data From School Surveys About Student Behavior, Attitudes, and Beliefs?

Who Is Using Personal Data From School Surveys About Student Behavior, Attitudes, and Beliefs?

Students in Utah, New Hampshire, and Missouri have all recently been distributed various surveys in school that require them to reveal personal information about themselves and their families’ behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs. But who is using all the personal data collected from these school surveys?

In Mapleton, Utah last week, students at the public junior high school were given a survey by a health teacher that asks, “What’s in your medicine cabinet?”

According to KSL.com, parents, local Nebo school district officials, and state lawmakers raised concerns when a copy of the assignment was shared on social media. School district officials said the assignment was not only a violation of privacy, but also state HIPPA laws.

“This was an innocent mistake,” said Lana Hiskey with the Nebo school district. “It was part of a health unit. [The teacher] wanted parents to know how to clean their medicine cabinets.”

The assignment reportedly concerned the issue of drug abuse in Utah County stemming from improper disposal of medications. Instructions asked students to go home, look in their medicine cabinets and report on the survey the names of medications, their purpose, and whether they are still in use.

“[Teachers] create their own lesson plans every day, so something like this can slip through without someone else knowing it,” Hiskey said. She described the teacher who assigned the survey as a first-year teacher who wanted to send home a meaningful assignment.

“We want all parents to know this is not an acceptable assignment,” Hiskey added.

State Sen. Deidre Henderson (R) also expressed her concern.

“They’re attaching drug abuse with, ‘Hey, tell us all the prescription drugs you may be on,'” Henderson said. “There is a shame and a stigma that is attached to that for kids who may be taking prescription medications.”

“So this is a health teacher with good intentions, really well-meaning, but misguided in what she thought was appropriate in an assignment given to kids,” Henderson added.

Writing about the incident at American Thinker, Thomas Lifson said that while the school district’s recognition that the survey is a problem is positive, “what kind of training, and what kind of organizational culture exists that such a thing could even be considered?”

In New Hampshire, parents learned of a survey from a project entitled “Monitoring the Future” (MTF), which seeks to measure “a wide range of behaviors, attitudes, values, experiences, plans, concerns, and general lifestyle orientations” of public school students.

“As its title suggests, this study is intended to assess the changing lifestyles, values, and preferences of American youth on a continuing basis,” states the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Each year since 1975, about 17,000 seniors have participated in the annual survey, which is conducted in some 130 high schools nationwide.”

The study uses responses not only from high school seniors, but also those of eighth and tenth grade students, as well as post high school “experience” follow-up information for research, “including pre-publication (and somewhat more detailed) versions of journal articles, other substantive articles, and methodological papers.”

Regarding confidentiality, MTF states student personal information, such as name, address, phone number, and email address “will be used ONLY for contacting you…A special Grant of Confidentiality from the U.S. government protects all information gathered in this research project.”

A 2011 sample letter of invitation to new participating schools, signed by Lloyd D. Johnston, Ph.D., MTF research professor and principal investigator, told high school principals:

I am writing to invite your school to participate in one of the nation’s most influential studies of American young people…Its results are featured regularly in virtually all national news outlets, as well as numerous local ones. Its importance is reflected in the fact that several U.S. Presidents have participated in the release of its findings, including in the past two years. MTF serves many important purposes, including measurement of progress on several of the nation’s education, health, and drug-reduction goals…

Your part is quite limited – to allow some of your 10th graders to take a 45-minute self-administered questionnaire, preferably during a regular class period…Each year your school will receive $1,000.00 as a token of our appreciation. [sic]

We routinely arrange to have parents notified before administering surveys, and would adapt our standard permission materials and procedures to your requirements…

The student brochure about the study provides interesting details about its uses.

“Each year, we provide the results to those who are in a position to change things,” states MTF.

“Educators want to know what students say about school and their feelings about further education,” the brochure continues. “National leaders will be hearing students’ thoughts on government and how it’s run. Community and business leaders will be learning what students have to say about their hopes for the future.”

Writing at Missouri Education Watchdog, Gretchen Logue reports that her state has its own surveys designed to determine drug use, attitudes, thoughts and behaviors – all shared among various governmental agencies.

According to the University of Missouri, Office of Social and Economic Database Analysis (OSEDA), both the Missouri Institute of Mental Health and the Missouri Department of Mental Health are assisting in the collection and reporting of the 2014 Missouri Student Survey.

OSEDA states its survey “is part of an on-going national effort designed to produce locally meaningful trends and comparisons.”

Speaking to school district officials, OSEDA states, “The survey should be used to collect data from at least one classroom per grade (6th-12th grade) in each of your buildings. However, you are encouraged to have as many students as possible take the survey as this will increase the reliability of the data for your district.” [sic]

“What sort of information is contained in the Missouri Student Survey: 2014 MSS Questionnaire?” Logue asserts. “It is similar to the ‘Monitor the Future’ survey from New Hampshire and asks questions about drugs, alcohol, parents and attitudes/beliefs.” 

Surveys used to measure student attitudes, lifestyles, values, and behaviors are administered to thousands of students each year, and the data shared with both governmental agencies and business and industry for the purpose of workforce development. With the assessments aligned with the Common Core standards now computer-based, collection of data from the testing for workforce development is becoming another standard education practice.