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Primer: Education Issues - Variables Affecting Student Achievement

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Student achievement is not simply a matter of what happens in school. Although schools can and do make a significant difference, research has identified numerous factors which affect student success. Four categories of variables which affect student achievement are discussed below: (1) School, (2) the Family and the Individual, (3) Social Incentives, and (4) Socio-Economic Conditions.

1. School Variables



Many schools group students on the basis of “ability”. As a result, many students end up in the “slow” track and are taught as if they can’t learn. Remedial courses move more slowly; the students have little hope of ever catching up. In fact, they fall further behind each year, and this is viewed as

acceptable. Many of us do not believe that all kids can learn and act on the basis of this belief. Glickman (1991) states, “We know that the evidence shows no benefits are gained by tracking students into ability groups. . . “ (p. 5).


Each year, five to seven percent of U.S. children are retained at grade level, on the assumption that retention is helpful for those who are immature and/or failing to achieve. Proponents also argue that in the long run the rate of dropout will be lower. However, research shows that none of these assumptions are valid. In fact, students who are retained one grade level have only one chance in fifty of graduating from high school. Those who are retained twice have virtually no chance of graduating (Glickman, 1991).

It also is interesting to note that in Japan and the United Kingdom the retention rate for students in the primary grades is zero, while in Europe and the Soviet Union the median retention rate is two percent.

Since the 1970’s, a number of studies have demonstrated that retention in grade does not help most low-achieving students. Recent research from Chicago (Reynolds, Temple, and McCoy, 1997) indicates that grade retention is frequently harmful to scholastic development, particularly if it occurs in the early grades. The Chicago research suggested three reasons why retention is not effective:

  1. The decision to retain a student frequently is made for nonacademic reasons. Boys, minorities, low-income children, and children demonstrating poor social adjustment are more likely to be retained, even after considering academic performance.
  2. Children who are retained do not do better academically after they repeat a grade. A longitudinal study of 1,539 Chicago children who were retained indicates these students do not improve their academic performance relative to other students their age or other students in their grade. Over time these students fall further and further behind.
  3. Grade retention may be inappropriate because it has the unintended consequence of contributing to a higher dropout rate. Grade retention is associated with a 42% increase in early school departure when retained students are compared with other students having a similar academic profile.

Class Size

In recent years there have been several research studies which show that reduced class sizes can improve student achievement. A discussion of these studies is found under Strategies for Improving the Public Schools.

School Size

Recent research on the effect of school size on student achievement indicates that a small school strategy may be a powerful school improvement model. While there is no single definition of “smallness,” some research indicates that an effective size for an elementary school is in the range of 300-400 students and that 400-800 students is appropriate for a secondary school (Cotton, 1996). Lee and Smith (1996) argue that slightly larger secondary schools, from 600-900 students, are necessary for good curricular diversity. On the other hand, small school advocates such as Deborah Meier and Ted Sizer of the Coalition of Essential Schools, believe that no secondary school should exceed 300 students (Cushman, 1997).

For both elementary and secondary students of all ability levels and in all kinds of settings, research has repeatedly found small schools to be superior to large schools on most measures and equal to them on the rest. A recent review of 103 studies identifies the relationship of school size to various aspects of schooling (Cotton, 1996):

  • Academic achievement in small schools is at least equal, and often superior, to that of large schools. The effects of small schools on the achievement of ethnic minority students and students of low socioeconomic status are the most positive of all.
  • Student attitudes toward school in general and toward particular school subjects are more positive in small schools.
  • Student social behavior, as measured by truancy, discipline problems, violence, theft, substance abuse, and gang participation, is more positive in small schools.
  • Levels of extracurricular participation are much higher and more varied in small schools than large ones.
  • Student attendance is better in small schools than in large ones, especially with minority or low SES students.
  • A smaller percentage of students drop out of small schools than large ones.
  • Students have a greater sense of belonging in small schools than in large ones. Interpersonal relations between and among students, teachers, and administrators are more positive in small schools than in large ones.
  • Student academic and general self-regard is higher in small schools than in large schools.
  • Students from small and large high schools perform comparably on college-related variables, such as grades, admissions, and graduation rates.
  • Despite the common belief that larger schools have higher quality curricula than small schools, no reliable relationship exists between school size and curriculum quality.
  • Larger schools are not necessarily less expensive to operate than small schools. Small high schools cost more money only if one tries to maintain the big-school infrastructure (e.g., a large bureaucracy).

There is increasing evidence that school size and poverty interact to affect student achievement. Research (Strange, 1997) from Alaska, California and West Virginia indicates that:

  • Larger schools moderately benefit affluent students, compared to smaller schools, but they increase the negative effect of poverty on the educational achievement of poor students.
  • Smaller schools substantially benefit students from poor communities, compared to larger schools, but they slightly reduce the positive effect of wealth on the achievement of affluent students.
  • The benefit of small schools for poor children is much greater than the benefit of large schools for rich children.

This research indicates that large schools not only hurt poor students, but actually increase the educational gap between wealthy and poor children

Best Practice

Many educators believe that there has been a failure to adopt new instructional practices which have been shown to improve student learning. A few examples follow:

  • "Across the past 20 years little seems to have changed in how students are taught. Despite much research suggesting better alternatives, classrooms still appear to be dominated by textbooks, teacher lectures, and short-answer activity sheets” (Mullis, et al., 1990, p. 10).
  • Effective teaching simply is not a set of generic practices, but instead is a set of context-driven decisions. Glickman (1991) notes, “Effective teachers do not use the same set of practices for every lesson. They do not--as mindless automatons--review the previous day’s lessons, state their objectives, present, demonstrate, model, check for understanding, provide guided practice, and use closure. Instead, what effective teachers do is constantly reflect about their work, observe whether students are learning or not, and then adjust their practices accordingly” (p. 6).
  • Students learn from involvement in real and meaningful activities. “In a century of public schools, little structural change has occurred in classroom teaching. The majority of classroom time is spent on teachers lecturing, students listening, students reading textbooks, or students filling out worksheets. To observe classrooms now is to observe them 50 years ago. . . ” (Glickman, p. 5).
  • A study of restructured schools (1990-1995) found that high quality student learning, i.e., authentic student achievement, is most likely to occur when students are engaged in the construction of personal knowledge, in disciplined inquiry, and in work which has value (application) beyond the school (Newmann and Wehlage, 1996, pp. 8-10).
  • Successful schools are not the result of implementing a list or set of desirable characteristics (Barth, 1990). Barth notes, “Our public schools have come to be dominated and driven by a conception of educational improvement that might be called list logic. The assumption of many outside of schools seems to be that if they can create lists of desirable school characteristics, if they can only be clear enough about directives and regulations, then these things will happen in schools . . . The vivid lack of congruence between the way schools are and the way others’ lists would have them be cause most school people to feel overwhelmed, insulted, and inadequate-- hardly building blocks for improving schools or professional relationships. . . As Ronald Edmonds often said, we know far more about the features that characterize an effective school than we know about how a school becomes effective in the first place.”

Standardized Achievement Tests

Critics of standardized achievement tests argue that their extensive use has a negative effect on academic achievement. Lipman (1987) and many others maintain that standardized achievement tests using a multiple choice format are not effective in measuring complex problem solving skills, divergent thinking, collaborative efforts among students, or communication skills.

In a similar vein, Resnick and Resnick (1989) maintain that standardized tests continue to feature short, choppy, superficial reading; searching for information in bits; passively recognizing errors (rather than producing corrections); and filling in preselected responses to other people’s questions. The responses must be fast and nonreflective. Judgment, interpretation, and thoughtful inference are all outside test boundaries.

Extensive use of these tests is said to be especially serious because their use communicates a message to parents, students and educators about what is important and also about how one demonstrates that he or she has mastered a given content. Standardized achievement tests do not effectively measure such skills as questioning, critical thinking, collaborative work, development of a product, or the ability to collect and use information. As a result, there is an important message being sent; we are saying that these skills are not all that important.

Gender Differences

In 1990, the American Association of University Women commissioned a national survey to study the interaction of self-esteem and education and career aspirations in adolescent girls and boys. The survey produced five major findings (American Association of University Women, 1991):

  1. Young women and men experience a loss of self-esteem as they grow older; however, adolescent women show a dramatically greater loss.
  2. Declining self-esteem, a governor on dreams and future actions, more strongly affects girls than it does boys.
  3. Family and school, not peers, have the greatest impacts on adolescents’ self-esteem and aspirations.
  4. How students come to regard math and science differs by gender.
  5. There is a circular relationship between liking math and science, self-esteem, and career interests.

The five factors listed above have a significant effect on women in their career choices. That is, even though there are few performance differences between females and males in math and the sciences at the K-12 level, as their college careers begin, women leave these fields at a rate of two and one half times that of men. While white women comprise 43% of the U.S. population, they occupy only 10% of the jobs in physical science, math, and engineering (Hewitt and Seymour, 1991).

A 1992 report by the American Association of University Women, entitled How Schools Shortchange Girls, offers the following observations on gender differences:

  • Gender differences in mathematics achievement are small and declining. Gender differences on the SAT-Mathematics test have declined but are still large. Larger gender differences are found at the higher academic and cognitive levels.
  • Gender differences in math-course participation are small, occur only in higher-level courses, and appear to be stable.
  • Differences in self-confidence are strongly correlated with course-taking in math and science. Research reveals a drop in girls’ math confidence and their achievement in the middle-school years. The drop in confidence precedes a decline in achievement.
  • Students’ interest in and enthusiasm for math and science decline the longer they are in school; however, losses for girls are greater than they are for boys.
  • Gender differences in science achievement are not decreasing and may be increasing. According to NAEP, gender differences are largest for seventeen-year-olds and have not changed since 1978. The areas of male advantage are physics, earth science, and space sciences.
  • Gender differences in the number of science courses students take are small. Girls are more apt to take advanced biology while boys take more physics and chemistry courses.
  • Gender differences show up in career plans as well. High school girls, even with high levels of academic preparation in math and science, are choosing math/science careers in disproportionately low number.
  • The focus on the educational inequities facing girls has obscured the difficulties boys face in school. On the 1992 National Assessment of Educational Progress, girls outscored the boys by 12 points in reading and by 17 points in writing. Other data show that boys are more likely than girls to get lower grades in school, be retained in grade, become a drop out, suffer from learning disabilities, and become involved in crime, alcohol and drugs.


The expectations of teachers, parents, and students themselves have a significant effect on achievement levels. For example:

  • Research shows that teacher expectations affect student learning. Students who are expected to learn are more likely to achieve in school. It has been shown that teachers generally tend to have lower expectations for minority children and children from poor families (Gaines and Davis, 1990). Teachers also have been found to have higher expectations for students who speak standard English (Cecil, 1988).
  • Tomlinson and Cross (1991) argue that the reforms made in education over the past several years have failed to demand more work from students. They state: “For fear of blaming the victims for their failure to learn, educators have been loath to endorse reform strategies that require hard work from students as a condition for learning, especially effort outside the classroom. . . Consequently, for the past 20 or 30 years, schools and reformers have vigorously searched for school improvements that would boost academic achievement without necessarily requiring additional effort from the students themselves”.
  • More than one-half of public school teachers think that at least one quarter of their students are unprepared for grade level work, according to a national study by Metropolitan Life (Teacher Survey Cites Students’ Lack of Readiness, 1992). This study of more than one thousand teachers showed that about 55% of teachers consider all, most, or at least one-quarter of their students unprepared for their studies. These figures were consistent across all grade levels.


Research shows that discussing, reading, and writing about text can help students understand it. However, NAEP reports (based on responses by teachers) that relatively small percentages of students are asked to discuss or write about what they have read

Likewise, NAEP results indicate that students generally are receiving little writing instruction. For example, the 1988 assessment of eighth graders found that nearly three-quarters of students reported spending an hour or less on writing instruction and assistance each week--a figure that translates to less than 15 minutes of instruction per day Further, the majority of eighth graders are spending most of their limited writing instructional time doing exercises on the mechanics of English (the very approach shown by research to be least effective) or responding to frequent short assignments (p. 60).

Students learn to write by frequent practice and by building an understanding of the dynamics of the composing process. Yet, in his comprehensive review of writing research, Hillocks (1986) reports that the most common mode of instruction was the least effective--a mode in which the teacher dominates all activity, and in which students act as the passive recipients of rules, advice, and examples of good writing. One of the most important findings of Hillocks was that grammar study and emphasis on mechanics and correctness in writing has little or no positive effect on improving students’ writing.

Mathematics and Science Instruction

There has been a wealth of research on mathematics and science instruction and the effect of that instruction on student achievement. Some examples of the research include the following;

  • Although mathematics is taught to all U.S. students every day during the first eight years of school, the proportion of students who enroll in mathematics drops throughout high school: 67% of 17-year olds report taking geometry, while fewer than 10% of students take pre-calculus or calculus.
  • International comparisons show that the U.S is only about average in the percent of high school students enrolled in advanced mathematics courses. In science, the U.S. was far below other industrial nations (Mullis, et al., 1990, p. 61).
  • Frequently, at the secondary level, mathematics courses are used as “wipe-out” courses. One-half of the students taking algebra are not allowed to take, or are discouraged from taking, higher level mathematics courses. Many people believe that the difficulty of the course makes it “good” and that the drop-off in enrollments in higher level mathematics courses is appropriate (Usiskin,1990).
  • Biology and chemistry enrollments have increased about 10% since 1982. However, only 10% of high school students report taking one course in physics.
  • Student attitudes play a powerful role in achievement patterns, course-taking decisions, and career choices. The 1992 NAEP research indicates that student attitudes have not changed in recent years. Thus, students’ opinions about the usefulness of science continue to decline between ages 13 and 17. Furthermore, more than one-fourth of 13- and 17-year old students reported that they were taking mathematics only because it was required. Fewer than half reported that they would like to take more mathematics.
  • Science instruction is minimal at the elementary level. At grade three, one-fifth of teachers report spending less than one hour on science instruction each week and another 49% report spending from one to two hours per week. Further, only 80 percent of the teachers feel adequately prepared to teach physical or natural science (Mullis, et al., 1990, p. 61).
  • By the end of the third grade, the American student tends no longer to like science. Science becomes an exercise in naming and memorizing. That pattern continues into the secondary level, particularly in the biological sciences, where our achievement levels are the lowest (Lapointe, Mead, and Phillips, 1989). Lapointe, Mead, and Phillips argue that the deadly nature of our school science curriculum drives many students away from the field as a career choice.
  • American science curriculum is fragmented into artificial course structures. Again, it does not reflect real science and is a barrier to a depth of understanding and stimulation of interest in the world of science. Furthermore, American students tend to see fewer connections between school science and the everyday world than any other students except those in Quebec Province (Lapointe, Mead, and Phillips, 1989).

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