Office of Planning and Research

Views of Climate and Learning (VOCAL) survey: Frequently Asked Questions

Below are answers to Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) that are often asked about VOCAL student survey project.

  1. What is VOCAL?
    "Views of Climate and Learning" (VOCAL) is an annual student survey sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Students are asked to share their views on three dimensions of school climate: engagement, safety, and environment.

  2. Why participate in VOCAL?
    Over the last three decades, research has demonstrated that positive school climate supports learning and positive youth development. The survey gives Massachusetts students a voice and an opportunity to provide feedback to schools and districts, which can use the data to strengthen students' social and emotional well-being, health, safety, and academic learning.

  3. Who takes the survey, and how is it designed?
    In 2019, VOCAL was administered to students in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10. All students who participate across the four grades answer a common set of items, in addition to items that are unique to each grade's survey. All students respond to 40 items designed to measure school climate.

  4. What does the survey measure?
    VOCAL is based on the conceptual framework of the U.S. Department of Education's School Climate Surveys, which focuses on measuring students' perception of three dimensions of school climate: engagement, safety, and environment. Each of these three dimensions is in turn composed of three topics. Engagement constitutes the topics of cultural and linguistic competence, relationships, and participation in class and school life. Safety is comprised of the topics of emotional safety, physical safety, and bullying/cyber-bullying. Environment incorporates the topics of instructional environment, discipline environment, and mental health environment.

  5. When and how is the survey administered?
    All surveys are administered online. The grade 5 and grade 8 surveys are administered online after students complete their MCAS Science and Technology/Engineering (STE) tests. The grade 4 and grade 10 surveys are administered online after students complete their MCAS Mathematics tests.

  6. Must students, schools, or districts participate in the VOCAL survey?
    No. Participation is voluntary.

  7. How long does the survey take?
    On average, the survey takes students approximately 15 minutes to complete.

  8. Do schools and districts receive reports of their students' aggregate responses?
    Yes. Districts receive a summary report of all their schools' survey data. To the extent data permits, each school receives an overall school climate index score, an engagement index score, a safety index score, an environment index score, and item-level frequency response data. For each type of score, school reports include comparative data to the district and to the state. Trend data is also provided.

  9. How will DESE ensure school and district index scores are reliable?
    For each index score, the reliability of the responses was estimated at the district-level, and separately at the school-level. If the reliability was less than 0.7 on a scale from 0 to 1, the data was suppressed.

  10. Will individual student identities be protected when reporting data to districts and schools?
    Yes. No student identities are ever shared. In addition, to preserve respondent confidentiality in school and district aggregate reports, DESE suppresses data if fewer than 10 students responded or if all students responded identically on an item.

  11. How will my school or district receive the 2019 VOCAL survey results?
    Districts will receive district summary reports and school climate reports in a new drop box called, "VOCAL 2019", within Dropbox Central. Similarly, schools will have access to their reports within the VOCAL 2019 drop box. District and school climate reports will be provided in Excel; these reports are printable. In addition, raw aggregate data is provided to allow districts and schools to make their own presentations of the VOCAL data.

  12. Does DESE offer training in how to analyze and interpret VOCAL data?
    Yes. DESE will offer up to 3 in-person trainings and one webinar each year, typically in the fall.

  13. Are the data received by schools and districts subject to public records requests?
    Yes. The data reports could be requested by the media, parents, and/or other stakeholder groups.

  14. My district/school participated in the survey last year, but we did not receive all our index scores. Will we receive them this year?
    DESE has made improvements to VOCAL that should ensure most schools receive a full complement of index scores. New items have been added to each survey to help schools and districts meet the minimum reliability requirement of 0.7 for index scores. Schools and districts can increase their chances of receiving all index scores by ensuring all students participate in the survey.

  15. If my district/school participated in last year's school climate survey, will we be able to compare our index scores this year to last year's?
    Yes. Index scores from 2019 will be reported on the same scale as those from 2018. 2018 is considered the baseline year for trend data going forward. This will allow schools and districts to compare scores over time, confirm response patterns in their data, and accurately measure any differences due to school improvement initiatives.

  16. If my district/school participated in last year's school climate survey, will we be able to compare our item percent response data this year to last year's?
    No. Item response data is specific to the cohort responding and is not on the same scale as the data from the previous year. Item response data is transformed to make it equal-interval, and the resulting indices can be used to make accurate comparisons over time. Item response data provides rich contextual information about how a cohort perceives their school climate, but it is specific to the year of administration. You can look for patterns of item percent responses and compare patterns across any two cohorts. When item response data replicates across cohorts, this information provides contextual information about schools' strengths or areas for improvement identified in the index score comparison.

  17. Do we have to pay for students to participate in VOCAL?
    No. DESE covers the entire cost of the school climate survey for schools and districts who chose to participate.

  18. May we share our reports with staff, students and other stakeholders?
    Yes. DESE encourages all stakeholders of the school community to have access to the reports. The school climate survey data are intended to be a conversation starter and used with other school data to inform and build a picture of schools' environments.

  19. How will DESE use my data?
    The data will be used by DESE's program offices to better identify resources and supports for Massachusetts educators to help improve local school climates. The surveys also help the state to meet related requirements included in Massachusetts' 2014 Act Relative to Bullying in Schools.

  20. Who do I contact if I have another question?
    Please email DESE at

Last Updated: November 1, 2019

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