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.
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 cant 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 1970s, 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:
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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 days
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.
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 peoples
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.
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
- Young women and men experience a loss of self-esteem as they grow
older; however, adolescent women show a dramatically greater loss.
- Declining self-esteem, a governor on dreams and future actions, more
strongly affects girls than it does boys.
- Family and school, not peers, have the greatest impacts on adolescents
self-esteem and aspirations.
- How students come to regard math and science differs by gender.
- 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
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;