More Thoughts on Why Students Skip School

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

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?

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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