Improving Outcomes with the Minnesota Student Survey
On Tuesday, August 15, over 131 attendees from Central Minnesota filled the Cascade Room in St. Cloud State University’s Atwood Ballroom. Dr. Michael Rodriquez, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, researches how social and cultural conditions influence learning and development. As he gazed at the crowd from the podium at the front of the room, he declared, “I hope we hear our students, because we have a lot to do.”
Rodriquez shared the most recent findings gleaned from the Minnesota Student Survey (MSS) data in a United Way of Central Minnesota Partner for Student Success presentation entitled, Sharing Insights, Informing Practice.
The MSS, begun in 1989, is a survey developed by the Minnesota Departments of Education, Health, Human Services and Public Safety and is administered to students in grades five, eight, nine and 11 every three years. Survey-taking is voluntary and anonymous, with nearly 70% of Minnesota school districts gathering student opinions on their educational journey, activities, behaviors, relationships in and out of school, plans for the future and more.
The MSS is important because it helps us better understand students and their actual experiences and needs on levels not covered by academic achievement measures alone. The MSS captures social and emotional experience dimensions that influence a young person’s world. It gives educators and others who support youth a glimpse into what affects their readiness to learn and their positive development.
While taking measures to avoid research bias, Rodriguez and team assume young people have an internal, natural ability to thrive. He believes students are the primary drivers of their own development. They benefit immensely from having at least one supportive relationship and a positive environment that nurtures their growth. Community plays a significant role in this process and when we care about our kids, they naturally build skills that maximize potential in ways that put them on a path that leads to lifelong success.
Data from the Search Institute back Rodriquez’s findings and show a correlation between the development of young people’s skills through positive supports and better outcomes. The data shows that when students report they are supported, they also tend to say other good things: they want to learn, they have better self-esteem, they accept others and understand people’s feelings and needs, they get better grades, they can make plans, they are involved in activities, they get bullied less, they bully others less, they skip school less, they use fewer drugs and they feel less stressed.
United Way Partner for Student Success gathered a panel of presentation attendees to discuss Dr. Rodriquez’s findings. These are their perspectives and reactions.
James Turner is a school social worker at Sauk Rapids-Rice Middle School.
Donna Roper is the executive director of research, evaluation and assessment for the St. Cloud Area School District.
Annabelle Trombley is a sophomore at Sartell-St. Stephen Public Schools.
Why do you feel it is essential for you and others to understand the current findings from the MSS data?
Donna: This is the longest-standing youth survey in the nation. And the fact that we now have over 12 years of data tells me this is something we should be listening to. As we heard today, there’s a lot of stability and consistency in the feedback from students. This resource is valuable for schools, families and the community to listen to and respond to. This data will move the work we’re doing in our schools to impact kids.
Annabelle: I think it’s important for us as youth to understand this information because we’re in many different activities and clubs, and it helps us make informed decisions and understand our peers.
James: To get this information and come to a place where it’s broken down is important as an educator because we serve kids daily. It’s important for us to hear and for students to have an opportunity to tell us their needs and their struggles. We may feel as educators we’re doing everything correctly, but it’s their lived experiences, so to hear them is vital. We come here with like-minded folks who want to make a difference and improve things. This presentation was impactful for me because we will leave here with a sense of continued purpose. Each of us has a role and responsibility in our work.
Was any information you learned this morning surprising?
Donna: I have been looking at the data for quite a while because of my position. I’ve been a part of some of Dr. Rodriguez’s previous sharings and belonged to groups where we’ve discussed the results. Because of this, I can’t say I was surprised, but I hope this will prompt curiosity and questions. I think these data sets can get us curious to ask more profound questions.
Annabelle: The students who took this survey are people I’m around all the time, so nothing surprised me too much. One thing that did surprise me was that there wasn’t a difference in the data among students who had a job and worked after school and those who didn’t. I was surprised by this.
James: There wasn’t anything that surprised me. I’m a staff member of Sauk Rapids School District, but it was interesting to see that we all need to work on student and staff relationships across school districts. As educators, we may feel we’re doing an outstanding job and that we are connecting with kids. But when you survey the actual kids, they see things differently. I’m a person that works with kids after school. I’m a person who’s a social worker. I make home visits. It’s beneficial to hear this information and think about what to do when we leave here. My school district team has already talked about getting together and discussing how we might do things differently to help better connect with kids.
Donna: Our educators find comparing the teacher-school and family-community support data interesting. Teachers and schools are deeply committed and care about students. I wonder what students perceive that doesn’t feel supportive to them? What about our learning environments that make kids think we cannot meet their needs? A lot in education is changing right now: How we learn, instruct, and assess. The impact of that data point should resonate with a lot of people. We’ll be digging in and trying to understand that better. We will need to lift the voices of our young ones to understand that.
Annabelle: As we review this survey in the future, it may be beneficial for the community to have students listen to the results of these presentations. My school and peers were a part of completing this survey. And it would be good to know what they thought and to ask them, “What is one thing that you would take away from this or what do you want your teachers to know about this?” I would love to get more real-time feedback from students.
This data digs deeply into information about specific groups of people. Why is this kind of approach essential for understanding our community?
Donna: While I do appreciate being able to disaggregate the data by the federally reported student accounting groups because that is what we do, our students are much more complex and many have multiple identities. I think it’s essential to honor the complexity of our kids and the many ways they know who they are. The results don’t always do that, but it’s helpful for us to understand where we have growth opportunities. Also, all students come with high levels of commitment to learning, no matter who they are. That’s probably one of the most important pieces to get out of the presentation today, in my view. That’s something that we can leverage. That’s an asset.
Annabelle: Splitting respondents into different groups and identities helps us know what we are getting right and where we can grow. At the same time, students wear so many different hats and grouping them can ignore the intersectionality of students.
James: The numbers and grouping of folks give us a snapshot. Disaggregating the data doesn’t give us a view of the whole student. It allows you to see, for example, from these particular years up to now, what the numbers are saying for this group. I saw many good things in the data and some concerning things. I work with all kids in afterschool programs and reach out to African-American young men. I also have an African-American group for middle and high school young women. We must ask how we engage the student and the family or caregivers in particular groups. It may be even more helpful if the data was broken down a bit more.
How will the knowledge you gained today change how you approach your work/how you act as a leader within your school or our community?
Donna: I’m excited to work on ideas around student-led data summits and to promote youth research projects. I think there’s a lot of potential in those ideas. I will focus on those areas and support getting kids more involved in data conversations. I want to ask them, “What questions do you want to answer and how do we turn that into a research question and project?”
Annabelle: I think this information could drive what kind of policies I’m interested in examining on the youth council because we do advocacy work on policy at the state level. Education is my focus on the council, and looking at specific student groups who may not perform as highly may be an opportunity for me in my school district to learn more.
James: It’s the beginning of the school year, so as a social worker, I ask myself how I hope to have the most impact. I am asking how my colleagues and I can make the most difference with students and parents in the community, school and home. How can we better support students? Pre-COVID, we got parents together and talked about ways we could help them better navigate our schools and who they should contact with some of their concerns. We got to find out what we were doing that they appreciated. And kids got to be part of that conversation with their parents. I want to hear more from them now, especially parents of color. I want to know what they may have experienced in their educational background that they may bring to the table as they raise their kids, and I want to hear about their experiences. Several years ago, I had a meeting and asked a kid, “Tell me what’s really working, what you appreciate about our school.” They were able to share that. I also asked, “What’s bothering you?” That kid was able to share that information, too. I could take that back to the staff, which was helpful. I’m motivated to make a difference, and I want to talk to my colleagues to implement what was discussed today. As education specialists, we all have our kind of lanes according to our job titles. But at the end of the day, we represent the whole school district and must ask ourselves, “How can we do a better job?” I realize the work will not happen overnight, but I feel like we will take some positive steps forward after today.
The multi-faceted MSS measure shows many aspects of students’ lives are intertwined and offers clues as to how those concerned about young people and their success—community members, health care providers, caregivers, school staff, afterschool and youth-serving organizations—may utilize what works best to develop kids’ strengths. Rodriquez summed this up during his presentation by saying, “This work, it’s about schoolwide, communitywide collective impact.”
Each of us has an essential role in young people’s lives. Their experiences and perspectives matter. When we listen to them, hear them and act to do what is best for them individually and collectively, we get to the root causes of challenges and create a better, healthier and more thriving Central Minnesota.