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Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009

Expectations are high, but engagement continues to be low in nation's high schools

Latest report from the High School Survey of Student Engagement notes a continuing "engagement gap"

EDITORS: To set up an interview with the study's author, Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, please contact Chuck Carney at 812-856-8027 or Remote interviews for television can be arranged.

Nov. 17, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A nationwide survey of high school students finds that nearly 90 percent expect to earn their diploma and go to college, but many report a lack of interest and effort in the classroom that may dampen those hopes.

"Engaging the Voices of Students: A Report on the 2007 & 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement" presents the latest numbers from the annual survey conducted by the Indiana University Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP). The survey asked more than 134,000 high school students about their thoughts, beliefs and perceptions in 2007 and 2008. The 2007 survey covered 104 schools in 30 states, and 119 schools in 27 states participated in the 2008 High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE).

Ethan Yazzie-Mintz

Ethan Yazzie-Mintz

Print-Quality Photo

In both the 2007 and 2008 surveys, 91.4 percent of respondents expected to graduate from high school. Just 1.2 percent didn't expect to earn a diploma. When asked why they go to school, 74 percent of respondents in each year said "Because I want to get a degree and go to college." Despite those expectations, according to the U.S. Department of Education, one in four public high school students did not graduate on time (four years after entering ninth grade) in the latest reporting period.

"The aspirations are not a problem," said Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, HSSSE project director. "They continue to expect at higher and higher levels to graduate and go on to college."

Student appreciation of the importance of high school also doesn't match the reality of the work they do. In each year, between 70 percent and 80 percent rate "doing written homework" and "reading and studying for class" as somewhat or very important or "a top priority." However, in each year more than 80 percent of students said they spent an hour or less on these tasks each day. More than 40 percent said they spent an hour or less on these tasks each week. Fewer than half of the respondents (48 percent) said they gave maximum effort in "most" or "all" of their classes.

"So we have to look at what's causing this gap between the time they actually spend and the priority they feel," Yazzie-Mintz said. "Some of this might connect to how interesting and how connected the importance of the material is to the class."

In findings quite consistent with the last HSSSE report (for 2006 data), many students report boredom with their classes and more than half have skipped school. Two out of three (67 percent in each year) say they are bored at least every day in class. Approximately one out of six say they're bored in every class. Just over half (51 percent in each survey year) said they've skipped school "once or twice" or "many times."

"These results should not to be taken to say that teachers need to be entertainers," Yazzie-Mintz said. "But there's got to be some way to connect this content and this material to where the students are and what their interests are. We are seeing from some of the open responses that they will take on challenges even in a content area where they're not good if it's being communicated and connected to them well."

Other key findings in the 2007 and 2008 HSSSE data include:

  • The three most-cited reasons for students who have considered dropping out are all school-related factors. "I didn't like the school" was the answer for 53 percent of students who have considered dropping out in 2007, 51 percent in 2008. "I didn't see the value in the work I was being asked to do" was the response of 44 percent in 2007, 45 percent in 2008. In 2007, 41 percent responded with "I didn't like the teachers,"while 40 percent had the same response in 2008.
  • Fewer than half of the respondents (45 percent in 2007, 46 percent in 2008) said they are challenged academically in most or all of their classes.
  • Two out of three students (66 percent in each year) believe that "most" or "all" of their teachers want them to do the best work they can do. Eighty-one percent of students in each year agreed or strongly agreed that they feel supported by teachers; they reported the same percentage when asked if they feel supported by other students.
  • Among instructional methods, those involving work and learning with peers rated most highly.
  • In each survey year, just 48 percent of respondents said they gave their maximum effort in "most" or "all" of their classes.

Yazzie-Mintz said follow-up research should focus on what he termed the "engagement gap," which he said mirrored the educational achievement gap in many ways. "Girls report higher levels of engagement than boys; students in the honors tracks reported the highest levels of engagement while students in special education reported the lowest levels of engagement; by race and ethnicity, white and Asian students reported higher levels of engagement than students of other races," he said.

Another big finding from the study is that students need to feel an important part of their school and that teachers can make a big difference in that feeling, Yazzie-Mintz said. "We hear over and over from students that they do want more supportive teachers," he said. "They want teachers who believe in them," noting several student responses on open-ended questions.

"One student said a good, engaging teacher makes all the difference. Another student said 'I always wished at least one teacher would see a skill in me that seemed extraordinary, or help to encourage its growth.' So there's a lot of feeling that teachers can make a lot of difference in the experience and the achievement of students."

The entire report is available at

HSSSE started in 2004 as an outgrowth of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a project of the Center for Postsecondary Research at IU focused on postsecondary students. Each participating school receives a customized report that compares its results to those of all HSSSE participants nationally. Schools may use the results to make changes that can improve the learning environment for their students.

HSSSE staff do not release information to the public or media about individual schools. However, individual participating schools can choose to release their results.

CEEP, Indiana's leading non-partisan program evaluation and education policy research center, promotes and supports rigorous evaluation and research primarily, but not exclusively, for educational, human services, and nonprofit organizations. Center projects address state and national education questions. CEEP is part of the IU School of Education. To learn more about CEEP, go to