HIGH SCHOOLS are under more scrutiny today than at any other time in recent memory. Employers and university faculty members lament that high school graduates do not have the knowledge, academic skills, and practical competencies to perform adequately in college or work environments. The senior year in particular is thought to be an educational wasteland. (1)
Policy makers, including President Bush, say that at least two years of college are needed to function effectively in today's work force, a view affirmed by various advocacy groups. (2) But only 68 of every 100 ninth-graders graduate from high school on time, with about 40 of them enrolling immediately in postsecondary education. (3) Equally troubling, only 27 of the original group of ninth-graders persist to a second year of college. (4)
Students drop out in part because they are not developing the skills they need to succeed in school--writing, spelling, basic math computation, and so forth. Even many of those who get to college are not well prepared. Threefifths of students in public two-year colleges and one-fourth of those in four-year colleges and universities require one or more years of MARTHA McCARTHY and GEORGE D. KUH are Chancellor's Professors at the School of Education, Indiana University, Bloomington. remedial coursework. (5) More than one-fourth of fouryear college students who have to take three or more remedial classes leave college after the first year. (6)
Certainly we must ensure that students take the right courses in high school and perform well on college entrance and placement exams. Transcripts and standardized tests document whether students and schools "measure up," but they do not identify the student behaviors and school features that need to be changed in order to enhance achievement and improve test results. It is also necessary to determine whether students are developing the study skills that are the foundation for academic success after high school. This is where data on student engagement can be helpful.
At first blush, the engagement premise appears simple, even self-evident. Under the right conditions, the more students do something, the more proficient they become. For example, the more students practice a skill, such as reading, writing, or problem solving, the more adept they become at the activity, especially when they get feedback about their performance.
In addition to these important behavioral components, however, engagement has an affective dimension, involving such issues as whether students get along with their peers and how they feel about the school environment. Moreover, engagement also has a cognitive component, in that engaged students are more willing to spend time on complex tasks. (7) As Fred Newmann has observed, engagement is "the student's psychological investment in learning, comprehending, and mastering knowledge or skills." (8) And the benefits of student engagement are compelling. Students who devote more time and energy to various educationally purposeful activities in high school get better grades, are more satisfied, and are more likely to graduate and go on to college. (9)
To what extent are high school students involved in the kinds of activities that will help them develop the habits of mind and the skills they will need later in life? The High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE, pronounced "hessie") was developed to help answer this question and to guide high school improvement efforts.
Building on the success of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) for college students, HSSSE collects data about students' activities and attitudes. In this article we report some key findings from the more than 170,000 students in grades 9 through 12 in 167 high schools across 28 states who completed HSSSE in 2004 and 2005. (10) Findings across the two years were generally comparable. We focus here on aspects of the high school experience that are directly related to preparing students for success in postsecondary education, occasionally drawing on results from HSSSE's sister surveys, NSSE (used with students attending four-year colleges) and CCSSE (Community College Survey of Student Engagement). …