Alaska law makes it harder to obtain student behavior data

The Alaska Legislature in 2012 passed a bill to measure the performance data of every school in the state, allowing administrators and legislators to track the success of programs and interventions at the school level.

But at the same time the state is making it easier to track school performance, it also is making it harder to track the success of programs that aim to improve student health and reduce the prevalence of problems such as underage drinking, rape and sexual violence.

When it comes to issues like drinking and drug use, the two pre-eminent data sources in the United States are the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, administered by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In order to make meaningful use its survey data, the CDC needs a response rate of at least 60 percent. Any region failing to achieve the 60 percent minimum has all of its responses thrown out.

The lower the response rate, the greater the chance the respondents won’t be fully representative of the total student population. And yet, in Alaska, whole swaths of the state have to be excluded because of laws passed by state legislators.

Alaska Statute 14.03.110 requires that schools receive written parental consent before administering any survey that includes a question that may be deemed private — even if the survey is anonymous like the risk behavior survey.

The statute was adopted in 1979 in an attempt to keep the state out of the private lives of its citizens. In 1997, Rep. Nels Anderson testified in the Education and Social Services Committee in defense of the statute.

“I’m not necessarily too happy about how deeply they pry into my private home. I don’t think it’s any of the district’s business … to get into the some of the areas that they did,” Anderson said.

In 1997, worried it might not be able to practically administer the risk behavior survey, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services asked the Department of Law to check on the scope of the statute.

Initially, the Department of Law said it believed this would only apply to matters involving students’ private family lives. Two years later, though, the Legislature came back and revised the language to specifically prevent questions about students’ personal private lives as well.

The law stayed in that form until 2015, when a bill sponsored by Sen. Mike Dunleavy was folded into the Legislature’s modified version of Erin’s Law. Dunleavy’s language tightened the state’s grip on surveys even further, removing any leeway from the statute.

Instead of just blocking surveys that ask for any personal, private information, the state now requires parental permission for any survey administered in any school, regardless of content or student anonymity.

Because of this law, Alaska routinely provides the CDC with one of the lowest response rates in the United States. That low response rate, in turn, makes it harder to extract representative data.

This differs from most states, which administer the risk behavior survey as an opt-out questionnaire, meaning parents have the right to opt their child out, but that to do so they must submit the decision in writing.

While most states are able to achieve response rates well above the threshold, whole regions of Alaska frequently miss the required mark of 60 percent, according to officials with the CDC.

This law is the reason the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District — one of the largest student regions in the state — is entirely excluded from state data on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Ellis Ott, the director of research and accountability for Fairbanks schools, said the district doesn’t allow students to take the survey without parental permission because administrators believe they would be breaking the law were they to do so.

“I would agree with (local behavioral health workers) that there’s a legitimate education interest in it,” Ott said of the survey. “It’s kind of a balancing act.”

In 2010, the CDC performed a study to measure the usefulness of its risk behavior survey. It found that states use the data to guide numerous decisions such as guiding health policies, measuring their effectiveness, guiding and supporting legislation, informing professional development and seeking federal funding.

In Delaware, for instance, the state used data from the risk behavior survey to guide professional development for its sexual education curricula.

“By creating a matrix that showed locations with high-risk populations for HIV infection and the schools where (survey) data indicated a need for further policy and curriculum development, Delaware was able to identify where professional development was most needed,” the study states.

To administer the Survey on Drug Use and Health, SAMHSA sends hundreds of surveyors to each state to meet with young people and to work with them in their homes to fill out the survey. The SAMHSA survey costs as much as $52 million per year to administer.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey, however, is administered by high school staff on behalf of the CDC. It goes out to millions of students in schools around the country, which allows it to show broad numbers for trends not only nationally but also at the state and, often, the local level.

“The primary payoff for everybody, the country, not just legislators, the primary payoff is we actually have a pretty good understanding of what the problem is,” said Rear Adm. Peter Delany, SAMHSA’s director of behavioral health statistics and quality. “And when we combine it with other data, we understand where the problem comes from.”

Without such studies, conducted throughout the country and repeated over time, states would have no way to compare efforts or measure the results of their efforts to combat issues such as underage alcohol and drug abuse. In order to apply data-driven solutions, states need to start with data.

“YRBS and Profiles data provide state and local agencies with important information about youth risk behavior engagement and school health policies and practices,” according to the CDC’s 2010 study. “It is critical for these agencies to understand and share their data to better address the health needs of students.”

Delaney agrees: “You can’t begin to address the problem unless you understand the problem.”

Originally published November 6, 2015 by Weston Morrow in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.