SPRINGFIELD -- As many as one million Illinois students, parents and teachers will be able to give their opinions about what they like and dislike about the state's public schools in a first-of-its-kind survey.
A 2011 state law requires children in grades six through 12 and teachers in all elementary and secondary grades be surveyed at least every two years, if money is available. The Illinois State Board of Education is using $550,000 in federal funds to pay for this year's effort, called the Illinois 5Essentials Survey. Federal money will be available to do the survey again next year, said Mary Fergus, the board's spokeswoman.
But given the state's budget crisis -- districts got $200 million less in state funding for this school year -- some question the timing of the assessment. A downstate superintendent has labeled it as the "perfect storm" to make public schools look bad.
Education officials say the answers could give them a better idea of the strengths and weaknesses of Illinois public schools. They say the feedback could spark efforts to make schools safer or even start night classes, like it did in one Chicago school that has sought community opinion for more than a decade.
One expert cautions that the survey alone won't lead to change.
"It's worthwhile to go and ask people what they think is going on in the classroom; it's much better than people kind of guessing," said Eric Camburn, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "But the surveys shouldn't be looked at as magic bullets themselves."
He said he sees the assessment as a "starting point" that would only lead to improvements over time if used periodically and in connection with other feedback.
Students will respond online to more than 70 multiple-choice questions -- it will take less than 20 minutes, according officials, who are asking schools to administer the survey during school hours.
Some questions will ask about learning, including the difficulty of homework assignments and tests. Others address bullying and safety concerns.
One question: "How safe do you feel in the hallways and bathrooms of school?" Another asks whether most students at school "like to put others down."
The survey will be available online through March 31. There are about one million pupils in middle and high schools who will take the survey, although no one, including teachers, is forced to participate.
While the superintendent of the Williamsville School District, David Root, expects to get some positive feedback from the assessment, he said the survey is a public-relations nightmare waiting to happen for schools with deep-troubled budgets.
"You're obviously going to have negative input," said Root, whose district is about 10 miles northeast of Springfield. "This is like asking people how they feel about their job when they know that there's the possibility of being cut or that there won't be any raises."
Fergus said it will be up to each district to decide what steps to take after results come back. Officials point to Peck Elementary School in Chicago as an example of the positive changes that can follow.
Principal Okab Hassan said the school's community has been surveyed with a smaller version of the 5Essentials questionnaire for nearly a decade. Hassan said the survey showed the community wanted more after-school programs. The school now offers evening math, computer and English-as-a-second-language classes for parents and students.
Officials anticipate input from about 100,000 teachers, whose questions concern their teaching methods, their students' behavior, and their relationship with co-workers and bosses.
Parents will be asked to respond to questions dealing with their involvement in their children's education and if they think their children will be more successful as adults.
School district administrators will receive the assessment results in June should their schools have the required 50 percent minimum participation. Some results will appear in each school's report card in October.