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Technical Report:

An Overview of Response Rates in the National Household Education Survey: 1991, 1993, 1995, and 1996

July 1997

(NCES 97-948) Ordering information


High response rates are critical to the success of surveys because the potential for nonresponse bias increases as the response rate decreases. The most effective way to avoid serious nonresponse bias is to achieve high response rates. Some have argued that response rates have been declining for many years (Kessler et al. 1995), but the evidence for this assertion is not very persuasive (Shettle et al. 1994). Rather than dealing with the more general question of response rates over time for different surveys, this report concentrates on the rates in one particular survey program. Response rates in the National Household Education Survey (NHES) have varied from one survey administration to the next, particularly at the household screening level. The 1995 and 1996 surveys had much lower household screening response rates than the 1991 and 1993 surveys.

The purpose of this report is to present descriptive information on response rates for the four NHES administrations in the context of the populations of interest and the survey procedures used for each cycle. Some of the reasons for changes in response rates among the surveys are presented, including results from a 1995 experiment in household screening[1]. Following an overview of the NHES, response rates at the screening level are addressed, followed by a discussion of response rates to the interviews conducted with or about persons sampled within households (extended interviews).

This report provides summary information pertaining to the four NHES cycles completed to date. More extensive information on each cycle of the NHES is available in NCES technical reports and working papers. See the section, "For More Information," at the end of this report for a list of pertinent documents.

The National Household Education Survey (NHES) is a data collection system of the (NCES), which has as its legislative mission the collection and publication of data on the condition of education in the Nation. The NHES is specifically designed to support this mission by providing information on those educational issues that are best addressed by contacting households rather than schools or other educational institutions. The NHES provides descriptive data on the educational activities of the U.S. population and offers policymakers, researchers, and educators a variety of statistics on the condition of education in the United States.

The NHES is a telephone survey of the noninstitutionalized civilian population of the U.S. Households are selected for the survey using random digit dialing (RDD) methods, and data are collected using computer-assisted telephone interviewing (CATI) procedures. From 45,000 to 64,000 households are screened for each administration, and individuals within households who meet predetermined criteria are sampled for more detailed or extended interviews. The data are weighted to permit estimates of the entire population. The NHES survey for a given year typically consists of a set of screening questions (Screener), which collects household composition and demographic data, and extended interviews on two substantive components addressing education-related topics. In order to assess data item reliability and inform future NHES surveys, each administration also includes a subsample of respondents for a reinterview.

The primary purpose of the NHES is to conduct repeated measurements of the same phenomena at different points in time. Throughout its history, the NHES has collected data in ways that permit estimates to be tracked across time. This includes repeating topical components on a rotating basis in order to provide comparative data across survey years. In addition, each administration of the NHES has benefited from experiences with previous cycles, resulting in enhancements to the survey procedures and content. Thus, while the survey affords the opportunity for tracking phenomena across time, it is also dynamic in addressing new issues and including conceptual and methodological refinements.

A new design feature of the NHES program implemented in the NHES:96 is the collection of demographic and educational information on members of all screened households, rather than just those households potentially eligible for a topical component. In addition, this expanded screening feature included a brief set of questions on an issue of interest to education program administrators or policymakers, public library use. The total Screener sample size was sufficient to produce state estimates of household characteristics for the NHES:96.

The NHES has been conducted in 1991, 1993, 1995, and 1996. Topics addressed by the NHES:91 were early childhood education and adult education. The NHES:93 collected information about school readiness and school safety and discipline. The 1991 components were repeated for the NHES:95, addressing early childhood program participation and adult education. Both components underwent substantial redesign to incorporate new issues and develop new measurement approaches. In the NHES:96, the topical components were parent/family involvement in education and civic involvement. The NHES:96 expanded screening feature included a set of questions on public library use.

In addition to its topical components, the NHES system has also included a number of methodological investigations which provide information that can be used to improve this and other survey programs in the future. These investigations have resulted in technical reports and working papers covering diverse topics such as telephone undercoverage bias, proxy reporting, and sampling methods. This series of technical reports and working papers provides valuable information on ways of improving the NHES. Some pertinent reports and working papers are listed in the "For More Information" section at the end of the report.


[1] A full report on the experiment is available in Brick, Collins, and Chandler (forthcoming).

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For more information about the content of this report, contact Kathryn Chandler at