A State Of Our Schools report released Tuesday gives insight into Oregon high schools from the people who know them best: the students.
More than a dozen high schoolers from a group called Oregon Student Voice worked with polling firm DHM Research and the nonprofit Chalkboard Project to survey more than 2,000 students at 42 Oregon high schools.
Grant High School junior and Oregon Student Voice member Amelia Ernst helped author the 41-page report. She said it was intended to ensure her group's policy ideas align with student priorities.
“We realized that there was no data about schools and the school environments through students’ eyes, so we decided to take the opportunity to not only hear from students about their schools, but have the survey executed by students too,” Ernst said.
The survey gauged students’ opinions of teacher quality, support services, school climate and students’ ability to influence policy, among other areas.
The issue that rose to the top, cited as most important by 40 percent of those surveyed, was mental health services. Only about half of students felt they could easily access such services at school.
The online survey ran from August to December 2017. It concluded well before the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which thrust school safety and mental health back into the national spotlight.
The State of the Schools report relied on focus groups and comments from students across Oregon to help illustrate and inform the survey data. Their anonymous statements added detail to sensitive issues, like concerns about mental health services and the limited capacity of school counselors.
“[Counselors] provide a space to talk and sometimes will refer you to the school-based health center,” said one student identified as attending a Portland-area high school. “The only thing is you have to wait to try and talk about what’s wrong with you, which can be a long time.”
The survey goes on to detail numerous aspects of student life in Oregon high schools that can affect students’ mental health. The difficulty and intensity of standardized tests are among that list. A majority of students disagree that the tests are a good gauge of their success, and 60 percent of those respondents say the tests damage their self-esteem.
Ernst said the report recommends schools change their approach to standardized tests.
“Look into alternative assessments and move away from just having tests, whether that means assessments based on portfolios or multiple aspects of a student’s performance,” she said.
The survey gave teachers high marks, with more than 80 percent of students saying they had good teachers. But students diverged in how well supported they felt, based in part on their future aspirations.
Nearly 85 percent of students who planned to go on to college said they had a teacher or staff person at school they trusted as a mentor. But that plummeted to 55 percent among students not planning to go to college.
Students said they felt school environments seemed to act on early assumptions about students.
“Students report that schools ‘give up on students way too quickly,’ labeling them as ‘problematic right away,’ which results in students disengaging or dropping out of school,” the report said.
Feelings about school differed based on gender as well. High school boys were more likely to feel respected at school (64 percent) than girls were (53 percent).
The report found students generally felt discipline policies were applied fairly, without discrimination, and that inappropriate statements are challenged or cut off in class. But students also report cases of prejudicial statements and actions being allowed without interruption.
Ernst noted the more critical observations came up in the focus group discussions conducted at 22 high schools.
“Students initially may say things like, ‘Oh, our school is respectful and there’s an atmosphere of trust,’ [but] once you dig a little deeper, you kind of see that’s not really the case,” Ernst said.
The State of Our Schools report found students’ freedom to offer feedback to teachers was “extremely important to students.” But the survey found only 29 percent of students said they’re regularly asked for that feedback. And sometimes the feedback was obviously disregarded.
“Students across the state related stories of teachers collecting student feedback and throwing it in the trash,” the survey narrative said.
Students reported seeing feedback used constructively, too.
“I’ve seen teachers who have given out a survey halfway through the year or the semester,” said an unidentified high schooler from Central Oregon. “And then after that, you can see a change in them.”
Students feel less able to influence school policies at a higher level with school district leaders, such as board members. While 64 percent of students felt comfortable taking up issues with teachers and administrators, and 57 percent felt schools actions took student concerns into account, that fell to 37 percent when it came to students feeling influential with school boards.
“It is clear that a significant portion of students feel incapable of using current outlets to express their concerns at the district level, or believe those outlets are non-existent,” the report said.
Career education has emerged as an increasing priority for leaders at the state level, including Gov. Kate Brown. Such programs are popular with high school students, as well, according to the State of the Schools report. The survey found 85 percent of high school students felt career-technical education was “important to prepare for their careers after high school.” But more than half of students said there weren’t enough career courses at their school, and 73 percent said they wanted options that weren’t offered.
“As Oregon begins to expand access to these courses, policymakers should consider the needs of students who desire increased and diversified course options that will better enable them to plan for careers after high school,” the report said.
Ernst said career education came through as a clear area for expansion, not only because the vast majority of students saw the value of the courses, but because it could improve the school experience for those students not on a college track.