When Montgomery County students return to school next month, they will take a poll asking whether they “energetically pursue goals,” “laughed or smiled a lot yesterday” and “have a best friend at school.”

The questions — intended to measure student hope, engagement and well-being — are part of a survey Montgomery is conducting with the help of polling giant Gallup.

After long relying on traditional measures of success, such as standardized test scores and graduation rates, the school district is redefining student achievement to include more social and emotional aspects of education.

“We’re taking a holistic view of what school performance looks like,” Superintendent Joshua P. Starr said. “Rather than just saying it’s just about student achievement results, we’re saying it is also about how you get student achievement results.”

In an era of school accountability, much of it linked to standardized testing, Montgomery is joining hundreds of districts across the country in trying to quantify how students feel about school and their lives so school officials can work to improve academic outcomes by improving school culture.

Educators, researchers and administrators say it isn’t just about handing all the students trophies and making them feel good. They contend that there is a direct line between emotional well-being and long-term academic and career success.

The Montgomery Board of Education this summer approved a policy that includes student hope, engagement and well-being as part of accountability measures school administrators must track and improve. Montgomery is the largest school system in the nation pursuing such work with Gallup on a districtwide scale. The Gallup Student Poll is surveying students in 2,000 schools nationwide this fall.

Although the student poll is free, Montgomery has paid Gallup $900,000 for three years of work, which includes helping Montgomery survey parents and staff to understand the “climate and culture” at individual schools. Gallup also will coach administrators in analyzing polling data so the staff can develop school plans to improve weak spots. Montgomery also surveyed students last year, meaning the new data will allow the district to compare hopefulness levels in its schools.

Starr, who is scheduled to be a featured speaker at the Gallup Education Conference in Nebraska this week, said such trends can be instrumental in determining how to help students do better in class, perhaps as important as examining reading and math scores. Starr has been an outspoken advocate for a moratorium on standardized testing.

Setting goals

A 2011 study published in the journal Child Development found that students in schools that put emphasis on their social and emotional lives performed better academically, scoring an average 11 percentage points higher on standardized exams compared with students in other schools.

Hope, in this case, isn’t about wishing for something you can’t control. For educators, it measures a student’s ability to set goals and reach them. But it might prove difficult to convince the public that measuring “hope” is as effective an assessment as an SAT score.

Mixing the measurement of feelings with academic accountability “sounds very subjective,” said Charles Barone, policy director of Democrats for Education Reform. Barone said it is important for school systems to continue to press the importance of traditional academic achievement.

“In the past, schools have tried to use the measurement of feelings to cover up that students aren’t doing very well,” Barone said.

Gallup’s student survey is based on 40 years of social science research that suggests that “hope, engagement and well-being” are measurable, manipulable variables. Studies indicate that these factors can better predict how well students do in school and the likelihood of future success than standard academic measures such as grade-point averages and test scores, said Timothy Hodges, director of research for the polling firm’s education arm.

“There is increasing attention on how to create a great place to work for teachers and students,” Hodges said. “If you have a teacher that creates a great place to learn, [students] are going to learn more.”

One statement students rate in the poll, for example, is: “There is an adult in my life who cares about my future.” Having positive adult relationships means children are more likely to ask for help personally and academically before problems escalate, said Beth Thomas, a former Montgomery middle school principal. During the first week of every school year, Thomas had each student find an adult on campus to talk to if the student needed help.

“Beyond test scores and graduation rates, we’re working with children,” Thomas said. “We’re working with people.”

Less rigid measures

Education reform efforts that started under President George W. Bush, including No Child Left Behind, emphasized standardized tests as a way to measure school performance and accountability. The policies focused on reading and math scores. Now school administrators say they are trying to develop less rigid measures of student achievement by including social and emotional learning.

In Minnesota, the nonprofit EdVisions Schools has been administering a “Hope Survey” since 2007. Research on affiliated schools’ practices has found that increasing hope among students has resulted in gains in math and other test scores.

In Texas, staff coaches are training teachers in Austin to help students “manage emotions and behaviors to achieve goals” in an effort to nurture “the whole child.”

And in Illinois, state legislators passed the Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003, requiring schools to teach students how to better manage their emotions and behavior.

In Montgomery County, Diego Avelar, 14, who will be a sophomore at Albert Einstein High School in August, said answering the survey made him feel as if the school system cared about his life. He also said he thinks that there is a direct relationship between doing well in school and scoring high on parts of the Gallup survey.

“It’s good for the teachers to see the students’ point of view and to see what [students] think of classes,” Avelar said.

Others expressed skepticism about the survey as an academic tool. Andrew Zhang — a 17-year-old rising senior at Richard Montgomery High School who is one of the county’s “hopeful” students — said it might be difficult for students to set academic goals based on subjective measures such as “hope.”

“When you try to evaluate things like school spirit or school participation through numbers, I don’t know if it is an accurate indication” of student achievement, Zhang said.

Montgomery County Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Eastern County), a former Board of Education member, said it is important for schools to consider students’ emotional development and well-being, but she said the school system should focus on academic measures as it works to close the achievement gap.

“You have to be careful in the balance,” Ervin said, adding that she worries that measuring hope sounds “silly.”

Starr said that he is not throwing out academic measures but that he wants students — in addition to attaining good grades — to be happy, creative people who can handle life’s challenges. He views the work with Gallup as “an opportunity to redefine” school improvement and student success.

“I want my kids to be straight-A students,” Starr said of his own three children. “But if I had to choose, and I don’t want to, I would rather have my kids be average students and be great people than straight-A students and average people.”