A widely used set of data measuring the health behaviors of D.C. youth has been rejected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because there wasn’t a high enough response rate—something one local nonprofit called “an embarrassment for the city and a huge setback in our city’s attempt to ‘measure’ our successes.”

Every two years, states and the District of Columbia submit information for the federal Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS); the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) collects and submits the data. The survey looks at six health categories, including tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use, sexual behaviors including risk of HIV/AIDS, diet, and physical inactivity, among others.

“Ultimately, it’s the youth who suffers,” Adam Tenner, executive director of the nonprofit Metro Teen AIDS, testified at an OSSE performance oversight hearing last week. Tenner said D.C. needed a response rate of 60 percent of its targeted sample size in order to meet the federal requirement for accurate, “weighted” data. D.C. didn’t even come close, reaching only 36 percent for high school and 54 percent for middle school participation, he said. He said the survey, with its weighted results, is needed to bring more resources—including federal and foundation funding—to community organizations like his and others.

Metro TeenAIDS, for instance, uses the survey to understand how often kids use condoms; the number of youth with multiple sexual partners; and the age kids first had sex. Without the published CDC data, Tenner contends it will be harder to make the case for additional funding or prevention materials to combat the city’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Gay rights advocates also say the data is critical in understanding the behaviors of local LGBT students. Past surveys indicated they’re more likely to use crystal meth and more likely to carry weapons or cut school.

State Superintendent Dr. Kerry Briggs said in a statement, “Student health is a priority for OSSE and we have already taken steps to improve the collection of student data on youth risk behavior.”

OSSE says it has conducted summits and other educational events to raise HIV/AIDS awareness among the District’s teens. OSSE also notes that the survey is not legally mandated, so school districts are not legally required to complete it.

According to OSSE, CDC will report D.C. as having unweighted data. That means the information can be used in grant applications but not to make comparisons to other school districts in other states.

But Tenner says that’s only part of the problem.

“The other part is we can not compare the information to a previous survey,” says Tenner. “One of the powerful things about this survey is when we are able to look at trends. “

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray invited Tenner to return to the Wilson Building on March 26 to testify at a hearing on the “Healthy School Act of 2009.”

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