Methods Matter: Tracking Health Disparities in Alternative High Schools

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Alternative high school (AHS) students are at-risk for school dropout and engage in high levels of health-risk behaviors that should be monitored over time. They are excluded from most public health surveillance efforts (e.g., Youth Risk Behavior Survey; YRBS), hindering our ability to monitor health disparities and allocate scarce resources to the areas of greatest need. Using active parental consent, we recruited 515 students from 14 AHSs in Texas to take a modified YRBS. We calculated three different participation rates, tracked participation by age of legal consent (≥18 and <18 years), and identified other considerations for obtaining quality data. Being required to use active consent resulted in a much lower cooperation rate among students <18 years (32%) versus those who were ≥18 years and could provide their own consent (57%). Because chronic truancy is prevalent in AHS students, cooperation rates may be more accurate than participation rates based off of enrollment or attendance. Requiring active consent and not having accurate participation rates may result in surveillance data that are of disparate quality. This threatens to mask the needs of AHS students and perpetuate disparities because we are likely missing the highest-risk students within a high-risk sample and cannot generalize findings.

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