Middle School Survey on Character Strength Includes Questions About How Much Religious Faith Students Have

Officials at Bethlehem Central Middle School (in New York) want to promote positive values to their students so they have put together a variety of ways to reward students who display them:

The school hosts pizza parties for students who display good character traits like caring, respect and fairness. Teachers give out Eagle Awards throughout the school day to students who show acts of kindness, courtesy and cooperation. A lunch table is set aside each week to recognize students who behave positively during lunch.

Sounds great. But things got weird when they gave students the opportunity to take an optional survey to “assess their character strengths,” with the results made available to the teachers and principal. On the surface, that might be fine, but when you look at some of the 96 questions on the Via Institute on Character survey, you realize that you get punished for not having religious faith:

Respondents read the statements and select the answer that best describes them: Very much like me, mostly like me, somewhat like me, not much like me, not like me at all

20) I have a faith that I practice.

28) I feel better when I pray.

51) I believe there is a Higher Power that points me to do the right thing.

84) There is a Higher Power looking out for my best interests.

The Via Institute’s website makes clear that spirituality is a positive value, which implies that atheists automatically have some sort of deficiency.

At least some people recognize that:

“If it’s a tool for discussion, it’s OK, but I don’t want my daughter to be judged because she is not a person of faith,” said Donna Patterson, a mother of a Bethlehem eighth-grader.

I decided to take the youth version of the survey, which anyone can do on the Via Institute’s website.

For almost every question, I answered “Very much like me.” But for the four faith-based questions, I answered “Not like me at all.”

So how did that go?

Once I got my report (or, I should say, the report for 13-year-old “Bob Jones”), I was surprised at what it said about my spirituality:

You have strong and coherent beliefs about the higher purpose and meaning of the universe. You know where you fit in the larger scheme. Your beliefs shape your actions and are a source of comfort to you.

I’m not sure if they completely ignored everything I said… or understand me completely.

The faith questions aren’t the only problem. It just seems like a bad survey, period:

“It is pretty ridiculous from a psychology research point of view,” said psychologist James Coyne of the University of Pennsylvania and University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

Survey respondents can easily figure out the “right” answer and get a perfect score by checking the box in the left-most column. Coyne also said it is biased toward the wealthy. “It’s a test for rich people because it is really responsive to the opportunities you have in your environment,” he said.

Several questions ask whether the respondent appreciates beauty or goes to art exhibits or performances.

“At best it’s silly. At worst it can be misused and harmful,” Coyne said of the survey.

The district should really just chuck the survey completely. It tells you nothing useful, it’s easy to manipulate, and it has the wrong idea about what qualifies as a positive character trait.

So far, though, the district hasn’t taken any action at all.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)

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