Intrusive student surveys should be ‘opt-in’

I recently wrote about the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey provided by the state Department of Education that asks students inappropriate and personal questions about gender, sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and their parents. (Not to mention the survey’s unscientific methodology.)

Do students have to take the survey? No, and school districts are required by federal law to inform parents of the survey so they can opt their child out of participating.

But that doesn’t always happen, and districts and school leadership aren’t always transparent about the questionnaires they are administering.

Opt in vs. Opt out

The solution? Allowing students’ parents to opt in rather than opt out of surveys that deal with protected information under federal law, writes Erika Sanzi with the American Enterprise Institute. This ensures that “parents are fully aware of the information about their children that districts are collecting and storing.”

Federal law (the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, or PPRA) identifies eight areas of protected information that parents have the right to opt their student out of answering — from political affiliation to sex behavior. “Federal lawmakers could expand the protections in the PPRA to require parents to opt in rather than opt out of any survey that touches on the protected areas,” continues Sanzi. “In the absence of a federal amendment, state lawmakers could require school districts to have parents opt in rather than opt out of any student surveys that touch on these areas.”

Normalizing questionable behavior

Not only are these surveys increasingly asking personal and invasive questions, but they are making assumptions about student behavior and framing morally objectionable behaviors as “acceptable,” according to a statement by the Minnesota Child Protection League. “The MSS [Minnesota Student Survey] normalizes suicidal thoughts, drug use, drinking alcohol, and rebellion. … The MSS also normalizes casual sex.”

Impressionable young people are left to wonder if use of or participation in what is being asked is expected of them. Or they are introduced to thinking about doing things that wouldn’t otherwise have crossed their mind. (For example, fifth graders are asked if they have used hash in the last year. My 12-year-old self certainly didn’t know what hash was, unless they were referring to that meat and potato dish my mom made for dinner the other night…)

In all seriousness, the content of many surveys and “screeners” being distributed today asks students for information that undermines both their privacy and moral standards. And it’s not clear how obtaining such information helps student learning.

Whose children are they?

“[These types of school surveys] look more like those one would expect to see in a pediatrician’s office, mental health facility, or gender clinic than what one might presume they would find in a sixth-grade classroom,” says Sanzi.

“Districts have not sufficiently set up systems that reliably honor parental opt-out requests. An opt-in system for surveys that venture into federally protected areas would fix that and protect the privacy of children and families.”