A group of students poses on the street near St. Paul's capitol buildingThe Minnesota Youth Development Research Group traveled to St. Paul in March to report their findings to the Minnesota Student Survey interagency team. Back (L-R): José Palma, Özge Ersan, Kyle Nickodem, Michael Rodriguez, Sam Ihlenfeldt, Rik Lamm, Carlos Chavez, Julio Cabrera. Front (L-R): Kory Vue, Tai Do, Mireya Smith, Youngsoon Kang, Alejandra Miranda.

Listening to Minnesota students

The Minnesota Youth Development Research Group helps decision makers hear voices from the Minnesota Student Survey

Since 1989, the Minnesota Student Survey, or MSS, has provided a way to hear young people’s voices. The 2016 MSS alone yielded a mountain of data from 160,000 kids in four grades (5, 8, 9, and 11) who each answered about 300 questions on topics from school to behavior to aspirations. The survey is administered every three to five years by an interagency team from the Minnesota departments of education, health, human services, and public safety.

When educational psychology professor Michael Rodriguez was serving on the two-year Minnesota Commission on Out-of-School Time in 2004, he pulled together a group of college and university students to help him look at what kids themselves were saying in the Minnesota Student Survey about what they do when they’re not in school. That research support was instrumental in documenting a clear link between after-school activities, academic achievement, and college readiness.

Rodriguez found the group so successful that he kept it going. Today it’s called the Minnesota Youth Development Research Group. For a decade, the group has conducted research with 2001-2016 MSS data, working to more effectively hear the voices of the next generation and share what they learn with schools and communities. Their studies have contributed to a knowledge base about not only about out-of-school time activities but risk factors and non-cognitive, or social-emotional, skills. All together they have written 45 papers that they’ve presented—including 11 this spring—and published some of them. Working with the survey has deepened the quality of their academic experience in Minnesota.

Kory Vue has been part of the research group since the summer before he started graduate school. Now in the doctoral program, he is on track to become the nation’s first Hmong PhD in quantitative methods in education. He recognizes how rare and valuable the experience of working with the MSS has been.

“It is through the questions from our applied work with data that new theory and methodology can be discovered,” says Vue. The research group experience made his academic progress more efficient, he believes, and it was also a source of motivation. “In terms of my state of mind, I was very optimistic and excited.”

The research group continues working with the MSS because the data set is so enormous that many schools receiving their raw results were overwhelmed. Most school districts underuse this resource.

“What’s a school going to do with that?” says Rodriguez. “They’re buried in data.”

Good news, too

The research group adopted a series of measures of students’ developmental skills (commitment to learning, positive identity, social competence), supports (family/community, teacher/school, empowerment), and challenges (bullied, bullying, mental distress, family violence) based on the best research available. They created composite measures for survey items on the same theme and created scalable measures to synchronize lots of data and information.

Most of the survey initially focused on the bad things kids do—illegal behavior, criminal behavior, violence, drug and alcohol use, smoking—but the research group looked for assets, too, and asked to add questions that would reveal positive things that kids bring to their schools, families, and communities.

Over the past year the group developed a statewide report looking at disparities in racial, ethnic, and other student characteristics. They also created a tool to pull data from the survey to generate the report automatically for a school district upon request. They meet every two weeks and over breaks.

In March, they went to St. Paul to deliver their latest reports to the MSS interagency team. It was a powerful experience for the students.

“Research is difficult, but what’s even more difficult is bringing research into practice,” says Vue. “Getting feedback from the interagency team makes me very optimistic about how the work we are doing can improve the educational environment in Minnesota.”

The interagency team listened intently to the student presents. Members asked lots of questions that delved into many areas and layers of the survey. The question period turned into a conversation.

“Dr. Rodriguez is a power user of the Minnesota Student Survey,” says senior research scientist Sharrilyn Evered, PhD, a member of the interagency team. “He and his team use sophisticated analytic techniques to leverage the breadth and depth of the data to answer questions that matter to decision makers. The quality and utility of their analysis brings attention to the MSS and shines a spotlight on the value of the survey to the state of Minnesota.”

Learn more

Early reports of the Minnesota Youth Development Research Group were completed for the Applied Research Collaborative on Youth Development of the U of M Extension Service. More recent papers have been presented at the annual meetings of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the National Council on Measurement in Education. Most of this work is available at the MYDRG website.

Return to “What we’re learning about gaps.”

Story and photo by Gayla Marty | Spring/Summer 2018