By Dr. Kent Pekel, President & CEO of Search Institute

The 2013-14 school year is well underway, and teachers across America are engaged in writing report cards to document their students’ progress. By June, our nation’s elementary and secondary schools will have cumulatively issued more than 100 million of those report cards, each of which will describe and evaluate how well students are meeting the expectations that teachers and schools have set for them.

Very few of those students, in contrast, will have the opportunity to describe and evaluate the kind and caliber of support they receive to help them meet those expectations. That imbalance should concern us because studies suggest that young people are most likely to achieve difficult objectives if they experience a mix of both challenge and support. If educators don’t ask how supported young people feel in an organized and ongoing way, they have nothing against which to calibrate the levels of challenge they expect young people to embrace and overcome.

A Complementary Companion to Report Cards

What if, to bring better balance to the situation, students issued “support cards” to complement the report cards that they receive throughout their educational careers? The purpose of issuing support cards, it’s important to note, would be to inform instruction and to strengthen supplemental services for students—not to further increase the number of ways that teachers and schools can be evaluated and held accountable.

The information that would be reported on support cards could be collected through short but valid and reliable surveys that ask students to describe the relationships, resources, expectations and opportunities in their lives. For example, more than half a million young people have taken Search Institute’s Developmental Assets Profile over the past seven years, and the data collected through that survey have shown strong correlations between the degree of support that students receive at school and at home and factors such as achievement, motivation, student engagement, and plans for education after high school. A study that my Search Institute colleagues and I are now conducting in a large urban school district with 40,000 students has also found significant correlations between those students’ experience of support and their levels of motivation and academic self-confidence, the frequency with which they practice good study habits, their grades, and their PSAT scores.

A New Way to Gauge Student Perceptions

An effective support card would begin with the basics: which of the school’s academic expectations, if any, does the student feel he or she may not be able to meet? Does the student feel that he or she can ask teachers for help in meeting those expectations? What about counselors and other student support staff? Is the student aware of tutoring, afterschool programs and other assistance that the school offers? What about other services that influence academic outcomes, such as assistance in preparing for postsecondary education or dealing with trauma? In all of these areas, it would be critical to ask students not only if they are aware of the opportunities for assistance that their schools offer, but also how frequently they take advantage of them.

In addition to students’ awareness and utilization of programmatic assistance, the support card should also include the psychological supports that influence student success. Do students feel they have teachers who believe they can succeed in school? Do students feel that school staff will support them if they try something new and fail? Do students feel that their peers support effort and achievement? When we look at patterns across student populations, do we see some groups of students who consistently have less support, suggesting new strategies for addressing educational inequities and gaps?

Resources and Relationships Beyond School Walls

Finally, the support card should also attempt to capture the resources and relationships that shape students’ lives beyond school walls. Search Institute studies have repeatedly found that participation in high-quality out-of-school time programs is associated with strong performance in school. Students who indicate on their support cards that they do not participate in such programs could be connected to them through the community-wide cradle-to-career partnerships that are springing up around the nation.

While schools have limited influence over the ways that parents interact with their children, support cards should nonetheless also ask students about the educational support they receive at home. Do students believe that their families value academic success? How frequently do students think their parents ask them how they are doing at school? Do students feel that they can ask family members for assistance with homework and other tasks?

Schools would need to be careful not to interpret or communicate information on family support as evidence of good or bad parenting. If that information is properly presented, however, it could help parents think about the messages they send to their children in new and potentially very constructive ways. I recently gave the Developmental Assets Profile to my own children, and in spite of (or maybe because of) the decades I have spent working in the field of education, I learned some surprising things about how they experience our family’s approach to learning and school. Data on the support that students receive at home could also help educators better understand the attitudes and behaviors that students bring with them into the classroom every day.

Amp Up Student Support

The idea of creating support cards that capture students’ answers to the questions I have suggested here might seem overwhelming and unnecessary to educators who already receive mountains of information from tests, school climate surveys, and other sources. I would submit, however, that it is information whose time has come after three decades of standards-based education reforms that have often been heavy on challenge but light on support.

The dramatic declines in reading and math scores that are currently being reported in many states confirm that in adopting the Common Core State Standards, the United States has committed itself to another major increase in the level of academic rigor that we expect most of our students to achieve. To help students make that leap, experts and educators across the country are designing new approaches to curriculum, instruction, assessment, professional development, and technology. Even as we take those and other steps to change the way the adults in our schools work with young people and with each other, we should also take the time to ask our students if they think they have the support they need to succeed.

Are you interested in learning more about support cards? Join us for a free webinar, Student Support Cards: Help Connect Kids with What They Need to Succeed, on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013, 12PM – 1PM, CST. Presented by Dr. Kent Pekel, President and CEO of Search Institute, participants will learn about how student support cards can inform instruction and strengthen supplemental services for young people in an organized, ongoing way. Register now >>

Photo Credit: Mark Gstohl