Saying ‘no’: stats on teen sex clarified

A misinterpreted answer to one of the questions on a teen behavior survey led to vastly skewed results being reported last month about sexual behavior among Hood River County 8th-graders.

Maija Yasui, Hood River County Prevention Coordinator, was concerned enough about the survey results, which indicated that 87 percent of 8th-graders were sexually active, that she twice tried to verify the data with the Oregon Health Division, which administers the anonymous surveys, before releasing it. Both times, a statistician with the division confirmed the figure, so Yasui reported the results at a community forum at Hood River Valley High School on Oct. 8.

The question, which was part of the Healthy Teen Survey given each spring to students in 8th and 11th grades, asked students if they had “ever had sexual intercourse.”

Every other question on the survey was worded in a yes/no format, with the answers calculated by the health division into percentages based on “yes” answers. For example, 57 percent of 8th graders reported that they had eaten breakfast five or more out of the past seven days.

The question about sexual behavior, however, was computed using the “no” answers; when students were asked if they had ever had sexual intercourse, the “no” responses were the ones used in calculating percentages.

Instead of 87 percent of 8th-graders reporting they were sexually active, that figure represents the number of students reporting they were not sexually active.

“The numbers were inverted,” Yasui said. She contacted the health division a third time after the Oct. 8 forum.

“I said, ‘This really bothers me,’” said Yasui, who requested the entire survey and computed results be sent to her rather than only the “summary report,” which is how the division normally distributes survey results. That’s when the discrepancy was discovered.

“We’re very pleased that the information is different,” Yasui said. “We thought the information was inaccurate. We want people to know that, when the survey was done, the question was clear to the kids. It’s how we interpreted the data” that led to the initial inaccuracy in reported results.

The revised survey results of 8th-graders reporting they were sexually active are: 12.5 percent of 8th-graders at Wy’east Middle School and 15.7 percent of 8th-graders at Hood River Middle School reported they’ve had sexual intercourse.

Yasui said those numbers are “in line” with the last couple of years. “It’s an increase, but not a significant increase,” she said.

“We’re affirming that 87 percent of kids by 8th grade have not had sexual intercourse,” said Rick Eggers, assistant superintendent of the Hood River County School District. “The negative side is, we’re still talking about children. We’re talking about 13 percent of children — and I’m using that term on purpose — have had sex by the time they’re in 8th grade. That still should be alarming.”

All other reported results of the teen behavior survey were correct, according to Yasui, who combed through all the results to make sure there were no other discrepancies. Areas of concern, according to Yasui, include reported use of illicit drugs (methamphetamine, cocaine or heroin) by 8th-graders at Hood River Middle School (10 percent of boys and 13 percent of girls), and at Hood River Valley High School (22 percent of boys and 18 percent of girls).

“We’ve looked at (those numbers) every which way and they still hold true,” Yasui said.

Yasui said she hopes people don’t lose faith in the surveys.

“The study’s valid,” she said, adding that because the surveys are conducted anonymously by strangers, they have a margin of error of only 3 percent. The health division surveys also help bring money into the community for prevention efforts, she said.

Joella Dethman, director of the Hood River County Commission on Children and Families, commended the school district for releasing the results of the teen surveys.

“This information comes to the district and they don’t have to give it out,” Dethman said. “It doesn’t always make everything look great, but they feel it’s important to share it with the community.” Along with helping attract funds for prevention efforts, data from the surveys is used by the district to help choose appropriate health curriculum.

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