Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Keeping tabs on U.S. students since 1991

If you've ever wondered how Colorado knows, say, that its youth are more likely to smoke on school campuses than the average U.S. student, the answer is that it asks them. Every other year since 1991, the Center for Disease Control has administered the Youth Risk Behavior Survey at a national level to question students about their recent behavior. The list of risks is long, but the list of survey questions is longer.

The State of Colorado has participated in the survey since its inception and is currently preparing for the latest round of questions about tobacco, alcohol, drugs, violence, sexual risk, dietary choices and physical inactivity. The national survey (below) is conducted at the middle- and high-school levels with varying degrees of length and direction. (The high-school survey, for example, is more pointed and twice as long.)

"The purpose of it is to help states and local school districts identify the major health and behavioral problems among their students, and then we look at the same problems nationwide," says Karen Hunter, senior public affairs specialist for the CDC. "We cover all of the risk behaviors students might face on a regular basis. It's very comprehensive."

The survey -- which features such blunt questions as "How much do you weigh without your shoes on?" and "During the past thirty days, on how many days did you carry a gun?" -- asks students to self-evaluate their behavior for the purpose of understanding how to address issues that might appear as trends. The test is not mandatory; students have the option to decline participation.

Once collected, the numbers are then compared across states, which is how the 2009 results suggested that Colorado high-school students are more likely to use ecstasy, less likely to be informed about AIDS or HIV, and less likely to attend P.E. than the national average.

Applied locally, the numbers assist programs and organizations such as the Denver Office of Drug Strategy, which used the information in a plan to tackle Denver's elevated rates of youth binge drinking.

The results from this year's survey, which will be conducted across the U.S. in the next few months and collected until the end of the year, will not be released until June 2012. Because the next survey is scheduled for 2013, the timeliness of the research occasionally puts a damper in its immediate application.

"It is exciting to wait for the data, especially on an issue we've been examining closely," says Vanessa Fenley, director of the Denver Office of Drug Strategy. For her office, that means ways to approach youth binge drinking, among other issues. "The wait between surveys makes it difficult to measure our effectiveness sometimes, but it's good to have the data in front of us."

Here's the survey.

2011 Middle School Youth Risk Behavior Survey

More from our Education archive: "Binge drinking: Denver youth drink more than the state and national average."

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