Obtaining Reliable Data From Surveys to Guide Your Decision-Making

Vol. 15 No. 3

advancement eletter Vol15 No3 surveydata

A common and quite costly mistake schools make is to base decisions on unreliable sources, from a small group of vocal parents who claim that “everyone” feels the same way, or national trends that may or may not apply to your school. The key to avoiding this mistake is to assume nothing. Costly examples include the assumption that families are leaving because of the cost of tuition or because you don’t have a swimming pool; that new families aren’t enrolling because the lower school entrance needs a million-dollar makeover; or that parents all want a Mandarin program (and should thus have one).

By surveying your parents, you will help identify your school’s strengths and areas to improve or grow. But the key to useful feedback is in how you collect the information.


In today’s world, surveys are usually conducted electronically because the response rates tend to be higher than paper or phone surveys. We recommend that these be anonymous to yield more honest responses. They can be conducted by the school or by a third party. Families tend to give more direct feedback to third parties because, even if a survey is said to be anonymous, respondents can be distrustful of a survey originating from the school.


The design of your survey is critical. A poorly designed survey can result in ambiguous, irrelevant, or unreliable data. If your school designs the survey in-house, make sure that someone with a solid background in survey design is involved in the project. Below are a few tips for creating a quality survey.

Attention to Length: The length of your survey depends on the participants involved. For attrition or applicant surveys, the participants are not necessarily invested in responding. So, if the survey takes them longer than five to seven minutes, minus voluntary responses to open-ended questions, they are likely not to bother. Current parent surveys, on the other hand, have greater respondent affinity because this group believes that their responses directly impacts the lives of their children. Current parents often take between 15 minutes and 45 minutes to complete a survey, depending on their responses to open-ended questions.

Clear: Too often schools use vague questions that invite ambiguity. Your questions should give you answers that you can use. For example, if you provide a check-off list of reasons for leaving, and it contains something like “Academics are too rigorous/not rigorous enough” and “Too many/not enough specialists,” what does the response mean? Which is it? Too much or too little?

Precise: Do not try to bundle factors into the same question. For example, if you ask parents to indicate agreement with the statement “School lunches are tasty and nutritious,” the parent may not know how to answer if the lunches are tasty, but not nutritious, or vice versa.

Relevant: For each question, ask yourself, “How will I use the data that results from this?” Sometimes we’re tempted to ask questions out of curiosity or interest without any real purpose. Make sure you only ask questions that will result in usable data. Also, never ask a question when you are not willing to make a change based on the answer. For example, don’t ask whether parents think AP courses are important if you have already decided to do away with them, or if you have no intention of eliminating them. You’ll set false expectations that can cause problems and reduce participant trust in future surveys.

Include open-ended questions (but not too many). Numbers are great, but open-ended questions provide further information to support the numerical data.

Done well, using a combination of surveys on an annual or semiannual basis is a valuable planning tool. Looking at trends over time will suggest data-based actions to take in terms of marketing your strengths, improving weak areas, and setting your strategic plan.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for School Heads Vol. 9 No. 1 Surveys: What You Really Know Makes You Stronger
The Source for Admission Directors Vol. 11 No. 6 Exit Interviews and Attrition Surveys

Additional ISM resources for Gold Members:
Vol. 40 No. 12 Responsible Survey Data Communication
I&P Vol. 40 No. 4 A Guide to Responsible Survey Data Analysis
I&P Vol. 39 No. 15 Launching Your School's Survey Initiative

blog comments powered by Disqus
Connect with ISM: