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Last modified: Monday, August 23, 2004

National survey gauges high school students' engagement

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- New survey results from Indiana University Bloomington complement standardized test scores by providing data on the experiences that influence high school students' academic performance. The High School Survey of Student Engagement identifies student behaviors and school characteristics that can be changed to enhance student learning.

HSSSE, a first-of-its-kind national survey, was piloted in 2003 and then completed in April by 90,530 students from 103 high schools in 26 states. Participating schools receive reports with extensive data on their students compared to the aggregate of all other HSSSE respondents. HSSSE respondents closely resemble the national profile of high school students based on U.S. Department of Education statistics.

On the survey, for example, 55 percent of the respondents reported spending three hours or less per week on homework, readings, rehearsing or other school assignments. "Students devoted more time to personal reading online than to assigned readings for their classes," said Martha McCarthy, HSSSE director and Chancellor's Professor in the School of Education at IU Bloomington. McCarthy noted that "schools can change expectations in this regard by providing assistance, such as a homework hotline, or offering incentives, such as bonus questions on homework assignments."

Teachers also might alter instructional activities based on the data pertaining to students' writing patterns. Three out of 10 students had written no papers longer than five pages during the current school year. They were more likely to have written shorter papers. Almost two-fifths had written at least seven papers less than three pages in length during the year.

McCarthy said current federal and state policies emphasize the use of standardized test results to evaluate students and schools. These tests, however, focus on what students know rather than on the conditions that lead to learning. HSSSE results can be used almost immediately to help schools identify where to focus attention and resources to improve student learning and school effectiveness. HSSSE builds on the success of IU's National Survey of Student Engagement, which has been asking college students questions about their college experience for five years.

Here are more HSSSE findings:


  • Fifty-eight percent of the high school students reported they feel safe at school.
  • Those who strongly agreed that they were supported by teachers were far more likely to feel safe at school than those who strongly disagreed that they were supported by teachers (76 percent compared to 24 percent).
  • Less than half (46 percent) of special education students reported feeling safe at school.
  • Freshmen were less likely than seniors to feel safe at school (54 percent compared to 67 percent).
  • African American students were much less likely than white students to feel safe at school (44 percent compared to 64 percent).

Selected activities

  • Work habits varied by grade: 70 percent of seniors spent more than 10 hours a week working for pay, compared to 11 percent of freshmen.
  • Male students were more likely than female students to spend more than seven hours a week exercising (40 percent compared to 28 percent), playing video games (25 percent to 5 percent) and watching television (37 percent to 25 percent).
  • Thirty-seven percent of the students reported they were not involved in school athletics, clubs, student government, publications or other school-sponsored activities. Twenty-nine percent reported devoting at least seven hours a week to such activities.

Student voice and the school environment

  • Fifty-one percent of the students indicated they have a voice in making classroom decisions.
  • Eighty-four percent said it is important to make good grades, yet only 56 percent indicated that they put forth a great deal of effort in their school work.
  • Less than half of the students said they cared about their current school (47percent) and would choose the same school again if given the opportunity (48 percent).
  • Sixty-four percent reported feeling like they fit in at school.
  • Almost three-fifths (59 percent) reported that their school placed a significant amount of emphasis on treating students fairly and with respect.


  • Twenty-four percent of students reported never having a serious conversation with a student of a different race or ethnicity. However, 44 percent reported they frequently had such conversations.
  • Forty-seven percent said they frequently had serious conversations with students who differed from them in terms of religious beliefs, political opinions or personal values.
  • Slightly less than half (49 percent) reported that views of different races, religions, genders or political beliefs were frequently considered in class discussions or assignments.
  • About two-fifths (41percent) reported that their school placed substantial emphasis on encouraging contact among students from different backgrounds and beliefs, while 24 percent of the students indicated their school placed very little emphasis on encouraging such contact.


  • Four out of five students reported that they expected to continue their education after high school, with as many as 71 percent aiming for a four-year bachelor's degree or higher.
  • Three out of four students reported that their schools placed a substantial amount of emphasis on preparing them for postsecondary education.

More HSSSE 2004 results and information about how schools can participate in the survey in 2005 can be found at This Web site also includes a list of participating schools, but it does not report any data that identify individual schools or students.

To speak with McCarthy, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or