Survey: High school fails to engage students

By Alvin P. Sanoff, special for USA TODAY 05/08/2005


A majority of high school students in the USA spend three hours or less a week preparing for classes yet still manage to get good grades, according to a study being released today by researchers who surveyed more than 90,000 high school students in 26 states.

The team at Indiana University in Bloomington calls the findings "troubling." The first large study to explore how engaged high school students are in their work, it adds to a growing body of evidence that many students are not challenged in the classroom.

Just 56% of students surveyed said they put a great deal of effort into schoolwork; only 43% said they work harder than they expected to. The study says 55% of students devote no more than three hours a week to class preparation, but 65% of these report getting A's or B's.

Students on the college track devoted the most time to preparation, but only 37% spent seven or more hours a week on schoolwork, compared with 22% of all high school students. Among seniors, just 11% of those on the college track said they spent seven or more hours a week on assigned reading, compared with 7% of all seniors.

Surprisingly, 18% of college-track seniors did not take a math course during their last year in high school. That could help explain why studies show that 22% of college students require remediation in math.

The Indiana study also found that 82% of students said they planned to enroll in some form of post-secondary education, and most said they expected to earn at least a bachelor's degree. But the study says "a substantial gap exists" between what students do in high school and what they will be expected to do in college.

Not challenging enough?

Time high school students spend preparing for class:

Hours per week

percentage of respondents, by instructional track



Special ed




0 hours






1-3 hours






4-6 hours






7-10 hours






11-14 hours






15+ hours






Source: High School Survey of Student Engagement

Martha McCarthy, a senior professor at Indiana University who directs the research project, says the results should serve as "a wake-up call. There is a need for students to work harder and do more rigorous coursework" if they are going to be ready for college. Research has found that one-quarter of students in four-year colleges require substantial remedial work.


The new study is part of a long-term project called the High School Survey of Student Engagement, a companion project since 2004 to the National Survey of Student Engagement, which has been administered to 900,000 students at four-year colleges since 2000. Both projects are supported primarily by schools interested in learning about the attitudes and experiences of their students.

McCarthy says many high schools have been surprised to find how little time students spend on homework and have instituted changes, such as brief quizzes based on homework assignments.

The study found that as students advance through high school, they are less likely to feel challenged to do their best work. Researchers also found that a higher proportion of students are likely to spend four or more hours a week doing personal reading online than doing assigned reading for their classes.

McCarthy says students' positive attitudes toward school were highly correlated with coming to class prepared, participating in discussions and getting prompt feedback from teachers. But 56% of students said they never or only sometimes get prompt feedback.

The results probably will provide momentum to a growing effort to reform high schools. In February, a survey of recent graduates found that whether they went on to college or entered the workforce, about 40% said they were not adequately prepared in school. That study was done in conjunction with the first National Education Summit, an event aimed at rallying governors around high school reform. A number of governors have pledged to make high school reform a priority.