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Overview: Historical Background

ELS:2002 is the fourth in a series of school-based longitudinal studies. All of these studies deal with the transition of American youth from secondary schooling to subsequent education and work roles. ELS:2002 must be seen in the context of these prior NCES high school studies. ELS:2002 looks back to these past studies, upon which it will build and to which its findings will be compared, at the same time, it will uniquely enhance the accomplishments of its predecessors by updating the content of the survey and extending the time line to a new decade. The three prior studies are described below; the four studies are depicted in the figure below.

Chart showing Research Design for the NCES High School Cohorts

Click on chart to view full size


NELS:88 The National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88) was launched in the spring of the 1987-88 school year with an initial sample of 24,599 participating eighth graders, one parent of each student participant, two of their teachers, and their school principal. Students were tested in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. Two years later, in the spring of 1990, a subsample of base year participants and nonparticipants was followed and resurveyed, when most cohort members were sophomores but others were dropouts or were in other grades. The sample was freshened to represent tenth graders in the United States in the spring of 1990, and students, teachers and school principals were surveyed as well. In 1992 the second follow-up repeated the student and dropout surveys, carried out freshening to ensure a representative senior cohort, repeated the parent and teacher surveys, and also followed a subsample of students who had been excluded from the base year (students who were deemed unable, owing to disabilities or language barriers, to complete the study instruments) to determine how they, and their outcomes, differed from students who had been included. The NELS:88 school and student residential data were also mapped to external sources, such as 1990 Census variables, to provide community-level or ecological variables. High school transcripts were also collected for NELS:88 sample members, as had been done for a subsample of the HS&B sophomore cohort a decade before. In 1994, the first out-of-school follow-up took place. The NELS:88 cohort was resurveyed again in the spring of 2000, and postsecondary transcripts were collected in the fall of 2000.


HS&B Nearly ten years later, in 1980, the second in the series of NCES longitudinal surveys of high school students was launched, this time starting with two high school cohorts. High School and Beyond (HS&B) included one cohort of high school seniors comparable to the seniors in NLS-72. The second cohort within HS&B extended the age span and analytical range of NCES's longitudinal studies by surveying a sample of high school sophomores.

With the sophomore cohort, information became available to study the relationship between early high school experiences and students' subsequent educational experiences in high school and thereafter. For the first time, national data were available showing students' academic growth over time and how family, community, school and classroom factors promoted or inhibited student learning. The HS&B school sample was large and diverse enough to permit investigations of the ways that public and private schools differ in their organization, curriculum, climate and outcomes. The HS&B test battery also permitted researchers to measure cognitive growth in the course of high school, as well as, through the HS&B questionnaires and transcript data, the correlates of growth. Moreover, data were now available to analyze the school experiences of students who later dropped out of high school. These data became a rich resource for policy makers and researchers over the next decade and provided an empirical base to inform the debates of the educational reform movement that began in the early 1980s. Both cohorts of HS&B were resurveyed in 1982, 1984, and 1986, and their postsecondary transcripts collected. The sophomore cohort was also resurveyed in 1992, with a postsecondary transcript update in 1993. Postsecondary issues addressed by HS&B's later rounds include the following:

  • How, when and why do students enroll in postsecondary education institutions?
  • Did those who expected (while in high school) to complete the baccalaureate degree actually do so?
  • What are the effects of student financial aid on postsecondary access, persistence, and attainment?


NLS-72 NCES's longitudinal research with high school students began with the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972 (NLS-72), with a sample of over 21,000 high school seniors. With this study, NCES began providing longitudinal data to educational policymakers and researchers that linked educational experiences with later outcomes such as early labor market experiences and postsecondary education enrollment and attainment. In 1968 the then-U.S. Office of Education awarded a contract to the Research Triangle Institute to develop a new study that would begin with a survey of 1972 high school seniors. To conduct intensive studies of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, NLS-72 oversampled schools in low -income areas and schools with significant minority enrollments. The cohort was resurveyed four times (in 1973, 1974, 1979, and 1986). Cognitive tests and questionnaires were administered in the base year, questionnaires were administered in subsequent years, and a postsecondary education transcript study was conducted in 1984.