"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Friday, February 17, 2012

Government Taking A Peek Into the Lives Of Students, Or Just Being Peeping Toms?

Warning **  today's blog contains explicit material, not meant for younger readers - unless they live in Wisconsin.

Dane County Wisconsin - The home of progressivism lives up to its name. An on-air host at WISN, Vicki McKenna, shed some light on a student survey that has been given to Dane County students for many years that asks intimate questions like:
  • Which of the following best describes you: Straight, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning
  • If I'm home after school between 3-6:00 there is: always, usually, seldom, never - a parent present
  • Is one or more of your family members involved in a gang?
  • How many cans or cups of the following drinks have you had in the last week: soda, energy drink, sweetened drink like Snapple, coffee, milk?
  • Do you have a disability that limits certain activities for you?  If yes which one (long list of disabilities provided)
  • When was the last time you saw a dentist?
  • Do you wear a seat belt while driving or riding in the car?
  • Do you have any long term emotional or mental health problems?
  • Have you ever choked yourself to make yourself pass out?
  • During your life, who have you had contact with?  males, females, no contact, females and males
  • How old were you when you had your first sexual contact (vaginal, anal, oral)?
  • Have you ever had sex with people while under the influence of alcohol marijuana or other drugs?
  • Is at least of your parents intoxicated at least once a week?
The list goes on, but it doesn't get better.  This on-line survey is administered to kids in 7th-12th grade through the schools. It is voluntary and students are promised anonymity. It comes from the Dane County Youth Commission. The fact that some of the questions are wildly inappropriate is obvious. Most businesses would be sued if they asked these questions of people who had reached the age of majority, let alone a minor. The bigger question is, "What do they do with the data?"

See the results of the 2009 survey if you would like to see the full list of questions asked.

The Youth Commission says it uses the data to plan services for youth in Dane County. Sounds good. But if they have too many kids responding that they stay up very late at night, what exactly is the Youth Commission going to do about that? If they see kids are drinking a lot of soda, what authority does the Youth Commission have to change that?

There are several questions on the survey whose answers provide no meaningful data.  "About how many people your age do you think have ever had sexual intercourse?"  If students grossly underestimate that number, does it serve a useful purpose to show them that many more kids are sexually active?  If they overestimate but proudly list themselves as abstaining, does anyone need to intervene to correct their perception?

Questions about whether they have been in foster care or have a family member in prison attempt to get at how many kids might need support for those conditions. But self reporting is notoriously inaccurate and the Youth Commission admits that they "sample" this data which means they are not getting full reporting from every student. They can get accurate foster data from Child Protective Services and inmate populations from the Dept of Corrections.  So why ask the student?

The main page of the Youth Commission Assessment lists both the aggregated survey results and several pdf documents, most of which deal with homosexuality.  Clearly this is an issue for them.  But a quick review of their own reports show that this is not an issue for the students.  Only 1% of them report homosexual tendencies and 99% of them report knowing where to go for support about their sexuality.

So is there a need for this 68 page survey or is this just voyeurism on the part of Dane County? One clue may be found in the Arkansas Needs Assessment Survey, a similar survey about drug and alcohol use, which parents are notified about in advance and given the option to opt out.  On their website they answer why a school would want to participate in this type of survey:
  • Provides data for the No Child Left Behind reporting requirements AT NO COST to the district
 Their data is not available for public review as Wisconsin's is.

Since the story broke, others have begun reporting similar types of surveys being given at their schools.  One teacher even noted that he has requested another teacher proctor this survey as he cannot, in good conscience, give this to his FOURTH GRADERS.  If parents were aware that these surveys were being given to their children, would they support it? Have they taught their kids that when the top of the document says "This is voluntary" they can decline to fill it out?

We would like to hear from teachers (who can comment anonymously) whether you have ever seen or been asked to give such a survey in your school.


  1. I am actually a graduate student doing my practicum work at a school district in Dane County and have been involved with administering the Dane County Youth Survey.

    In early November, parents were notified (via school newsletter) that the survey would be taking place in January/February of 2012. Parents were told who to contact with questions, where to go to preview a copy of the survey, and that the survey is confidential and anonymous. Questions were developed by members of the Dane County Youth Commission and pupil service staff from different school districts around Dane County.

    During the administering of the survey, all students were informed that they did not have to take the survey and that if they did not want to answer any specific question, they could skip that question by pressing the "next" button. There was at least one staff member present at all times when students were taking the survey for any questions the students may have had.

    As for the results of the survey, schools are given the responses from only their school and a compiled data set from all Dane County schools. In the fall, we wrote (and received) an AODA grant using data from the 2009 survey. Data is also used to determine what community resources may be lacking in smaller communities outside of Madison (medical and dental clinics, mental health resources etc). Data is also used for education within schools. If many students are reporting that they know nothing or next to nothing about mental health, that specific topic will be addressed more in health classes in school. Data may also be used to influence administration. If the majority of students are saying that they feel bullied at school, steps will be taken to try to reduce the rates of bullying.

    Overall, I think the data is very useful both on the county and school district levels and that some questions, no matter how sensitive, need to be asked for educational purposes.

  2. I appreciate your responding to our post. I can also appreciate how there would be those who view this data as beneficial. The scientists who participated in the Tuskegee Alabama STD study also believed the data they gathered were very important. But an outsider's perceived need for such intimate data does not outweigh the ethical concerns in gathering such information. It would be one thing if these tests were sent home so parents could review them with their children. And before you respond that children might not be as honest in their answers (i.e. on familial abuse), explain how an anonymous report of such abuse is going to help that particular child. Stating that a teacher was available if there were questions is of little value when a teenager, who has been through the trauma of an abortion, is faced with the dilemma of reporting such an event while in a sterile classroom. Science is used to try to tie things up in neat little bundles, but life is complex, and messy, and sometimes unpredictable. Anonymous statistical reports are nice for planning purposes but they are no substitute for caring adults who could be involved in these children's lives. If you open a teen center staffed with caring adults who accept all children, regardless of the reason they are there, you will achieve more than a dozen specialty clinics that process those kids so their number served is high, which is all that most government agencies look at at the end of the day. You have only to look at the disasters perpetrated by many Child Protective Services offices around this country to realize why assigning the welfare of children to governmental outsiders is not a good idea.

  3. Anggie,,

    Great post and a well thought out reply to Anonymous. I just reblogged it on Grumpy.

    Anonymous, with all due respect; while I appreciate the value of the information for legitimate purposes, I believe it is an extreme case of of over-reach. In some instances it may be encouraging not so advisable behavior.

    For example the questions about sex, drugs and alcohol presume the students engage in inappropriate behavior-- Would you want to think you might be the only 13 year old in school who is still a virgin or never got drunk? At the first opportunity you're going to catch up with your classmates..

    As for the value of the data, Americans value their Constitutional protection from government intrusion into their private lives. The men that wrote the Constitution realized that there would always some person or group with a compelling reason to intrude on that privacy- that is why they added the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.

    You are as aware as I am that the majority of parents have a misplaced trust in our education system. Sure you "notified" them, but

    You did in a way that wouldn't even reach a number of parents and with the full knowledge that most would assume that if the school was doing it--it must be legal and harmless. By not insuring that all parents knew the exact nature of the test you intentionally circumvented parental consent.

    Tell me, in Missouri can the police question a minor without a parent or lawyer present-- If the police can't do it investigating a crime-- where you get the right to do it on a fishing expedition.


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