More Thoughts on Why Students Skip School

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Responding to reader questions about the limitations and lessons of a survey on truancy

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Students graduating high school in Missouri listen to President Obama speak at their commencement. (Reuters)

I wanted to follow up on a new survey I wrote about recently that asked students why they skipped school. I heard from a few readers (including some at this website) who raised good questions about the parameters of the survey, as well as the usefulness of the findings.

For "Skipping to Nowhere," the Get Schooled Foundation, a national nonprofit aimed at improving graduation rates and college success rates, sent interviewers to malls in 25 cities nationwide. The time frame was June 14-29, when most schools were already out for the summer break. According to Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research, which conducted the survey, the interviews typically took place at lunchtime and were spread out over the days of the week, although a few locations opted not to hold Sunday sessions.

The 516 student respondents were in grades 8-12, and reported that they skipped school at least once per month. The survey concluded that the respondents came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and that most of them didn't believe their teachers or parents noticed their absences.

The students also didn't believe their truancy would hurt their chances of school success until they missed class at least two times per week. That notion runs counter to a growing body of research that connects even a handful of missed days with lower academic achievement -- and those consequences can grow exponentially with increased absences.

Several readers raised concerns about a question in which students were asked if their parents had graduated from college. Why didn't the interviewer distinguish between two-year and four-year degrees? In retrospect, "that might have been a good idea," Garin told me in an email Tuesday.

What the survey did determine is that a third of the respondents had at least one parent who dropped out of high school before graduating. And 34 percent said they had at least one parent who graduated from college.

If that question was intended to figure out how much value the respondents' parents place on education - as evidenced by their own attainment level -- it might not be essential to know if they had two-year or four-year degrees.

Kevin Corcoran, program director for the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on improving the nation's higher education outcomes, said he wasn't aware of evidence that there was a significant difference in community college graduate parents' beliefs about the importance of higher education when compared with parents with four-year degrees. In fact, Corcoran said, community college parents might actually be the louder proponents of the value of the more advanced degree.

When it comes to weighing the usefulness of these types of education-related surveys, I'd argue it's better to consider them field notes rather than litmus tests. We get an interesting picture -- albeit one taken with a relatively narrow lens -- but it's also one we don't often get to see. We hear plenty about the school attendance statistics, but how frequently do we hear from the students themselves?

Research scientist Robert Balfanz, co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, agrees. The Get Schooled survey "is not trying to be a random sampling of all students who miss school," Balfanz said. "What it really captures are those students who in essence are absent for discretionary reasons."

Those discretionary reasons include simply preferring other activities to attending class: 32 percent of the respondents said a "very big reason" they skipped was that school was boring, and 23 percent preferred spending time with friends off-campus. Those discretionary "skippers" are "an important group of students to understand," Balfanz said.

What Get Schooled's mall sample doesn't capture are students who quit school entirely to help care for family members or to support themselves. Balfanz said it's likely there are also many students who are skipping school as an avoidance maneuver: Perhaps they don't feel safe on campus in general or are being bullied in particular. Those students are probably less likely to be hanging out at the mall in the interim.

So here's my idea: Why not ask students about skipping school using an established research tool that already has access to a representative sampling of the nation's middle and high school students?

Every two years, states participate in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is administered by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Students are asked a wide range of questions including about their sexual behavior, alcohol and drug use, personal safety (such as whether they wear car seat belts), nutritional habits, physical activity, and wellness. The results are compiled into a profile of the nation's youth.

Because the surveys are anonymous and self-reported, the results offer an unusually candid glimpse of students' experiences. The findings are also validated by other measures.

Researchers are already exploring the associated health risks of chronic absenteeism. After reading the Get Schooled report, I wondered why data about school attendance wasn't part of the CDC's findings on youth behavior nationally.

I checked with the CDC, and it turns out states have the option to ask students how often they're absent from school without permission in the prior 30 days. In 2011, the most recent year in which the YRBS was administered, only Alaska and New Mexico included the truancy question. In my view, that's a question every state should be asking.

That's also an idea Balfanz said he would support, and he added that the Everyone Graduates Center has been advocating for similar questions to be included in the annual school survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.

The answers to the nation's school attendance problem won't be found in one survey. As a means of furthering that conversation, it might help to spend more time talking to individual students about their experiences, and what they believe would help them improve their daily attendance -- and their attention when they do show up.


This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun from 2002 to 2010, and in 2011 she was Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. She blogs at www.educatedreporter.com.

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