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Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Latest HSSSE results show familiar theme: bored, disconnected students want more from schools

Schools are using High School Survey of Student Engagement results to find solutions for their students

June 8, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The most recent results from the annual High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) closely resemble past findings, reflecting bored students who say they are not connected to their school.

Ethan Yazzie-Mintz

Ethan Yazzie-Mintz

Print-Quality Photo

"Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report on the 2009 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 42,000 high school students about their thoughts, beliefs and perceptions in 2009. The 2009 survey covered 103 schools in 27 states. This report also profiles individual schools and districts that are using HSSSE data, showing how schools are using the survey to improve the effectiveness of instruction.

The numbers between 2006 and 2009 have consistently shown a troubling trend among high school students in the U.S.

"We could have the same headlines, 'Kids are bored, not connected to school,'" said Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, HSSSE project director. "We've got similar numbers in terms of kids who are bored every day -- about 49 percent of the kids are bored every day, 17 percent every class. That's two-thirds of the kids who are bored at least every day."

Here are some of the findings:

  • Only two percent of students said they'd never been bored in school.
  • Just 41 percent of the students in the 2009 survey responded that they went to school because of what they learn in classes.
  • Only 23 percent said they went because of their teachers.
  • Around a third said they went because they enjoy being in school.
  • Students who have thought about dropping out continue to cite a lack of engagement with the school as a reason: 50 percent said they considered dropping out because they didn't like the school (51 percent cited this in the 2008 survey); 39 percent said they considered it because they didn't like the teachers (40 percent in 2008); 42 percent said they thought of dropping out because they didn't see the value in the work they were asked to do (45 percent in 2008).

But students did clearly indicate what might motivate them. Asked to respond to the statement that they welcome opportunities to be creative at school, 82 percent said they agree or strongly agree. As for what methods they preferred in the classroom, 65 percent agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I like discussions in which there are no clear answers."

"Many students would be more engaged in school if they were intellectually challenged by their work. Discussion and debate is still one of the highest rated kinds of teaching, as are group projects," Yazzie-Mintz said. "Technology projects, art and drama projects also have a good number of kids saying they really like this type of teaching."

Because of such responses, Yazzie-Mintz said this report focuses on how schools are analyzing and responding to their student engagement data. The report highlights how several schools across the country are using the data to develop best practices.

"It would be easy for schools to point to a range of external factors to explain deficits in engagement levels and student achievement, but these schools, and many others, are looking inward and taking their students seriously," said Yazzie-Mintz. "They are blazing a trail from engagement to achievement."

  • Kealakehe High School in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, has focused on building relationships between school staff and students. "They say they used to focus on relationships a lot, but 'No Child Left Behind' has made them focus on tests and outputs," Yazzie-Mintz said. According to the principal of Kealakehe, Wilfred Murakami, there is a perception that people love the school and that most students participate in school activities; HSSSE data revealed that actually just about half of the students say they love the school and, similarly, about half participate in school activities. The principal uses the data to raise important questions with his staff: "What about the rest of the kids? What are those kids doing?"
  • The prevalence of disaffected students revealed by HSSSE has prompted the Chesterfield County district in central Virginia to concentrate on that issue. "They've tried to focus on listening to those kids, having people work with them more closely and bring them back in," Yazzie-Mintz said. "Not just to force them to be in class and do the work, but to attend to their needs." HSSSE is an integral part of Chesterfield County's six-year "Design for Excellence" strategic plan: "We look at engagement as a way of understanding which kids are academically at risk," said Chesterfield County's Manager of School Improvement Glen Miller.
  • First-time HSSSE participant Yorkville High School in Yorkville, IL, near Chicago, has seen a flatlining of student outcome measures -- including ACT scores -- and high course failure rates in recent years. They are now using their HSSSE data to revise curriculum, schedules and instructional practices. "There was an assumption that 'if we teach it, you will learn it,'" said Yorkville principal Timothy Shimp. "What we're learning from the engagement data is 'personalization.' Engagement will drive structures."
  • The small Explorations Academy in Bellingham, Wash., which has just 20 students, has started using HSSSE to determine if students are getting full advantage of their design. "Their whole idea is really engagement," Yazzie-Mintz said. "They do active learning, hands-on projects, and they've used HSSSE really to see if they're walking the walk."
  • A school district that has been using HSSSE for three years is trying to dig deeper than achievement data, using HSSSE to find underlying issues and creating a districtwide conversation broader than test scores and AYP. "They're at the beginning of this process," Yazzie-Mintz said. "Their theory is that change in self-reported engagement data will lead to change in achievement data."

The profiles of these schools and districts offer a window into the ways in which student engagement data are being utilized in the field.

"Much of the research investigating the links between engagement and achievement focus primarily on two factors: student behavior and school structures," said Yazzie-Mintz. "These schools are digging deeper, creating a more complex picture of the path from engagement to achievement. They are looking at relationships, teaching and learning, the roles of adults, and the ways in which the various aspects of the school experience interact for students."

A principal at one participating high school said HSSSE is allowing the school to focus on where school faculty and staff can best build relationships to help students. Homestead High School of Fort Wayne, Ind., has been adjusting its structure with help from a federal "Small Learning Communities" (SLCs) grant. SLCs are often referred to as "schools within schools," establishing more concise groups of student coursework within the structure of a large school.

"But as our student base changes over time, more and more strategies are needed to reach a variety of students," Principal Rick Smith said. The HSSSE data, collected since 2005, have allowed the school to evaluate where things should change. "And as we take a look at that over time, I think we're able to see some shifts in how students perceive their education as being played out."

Yazzie-Mintz said that one value in seeing continuing student responses along the same vein is that the pattern is now more evident and schools can begin taking action.

"These schools are starting to see that when you engage the students, get them interested and keep them in it, student outcomes -- including achievement -- will increase," he said.

The entire report is online at More comments from Yazzie-Mintz and administrators at a participating HSSSE school are in this short video.


The High School Survey of Student Engagement 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. Today, HSSSE is the most comprehensive survey of student engagement and school climate issues available to schools. 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 without explicit permission. 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