Information Brief 99-2

What Helps or Hinders Students' Educational Achievement?

What allows some high school students to achieve more than others? One important factor is high school course work. We know that students who take rigorous courses in high school and who earn high grades in those courses are more likely to achieve high ACT scores. For example, students who have taken trigonometry or calculus in high school are at least three times more likely to have high ACT Composite scores than those who have not.

In general, rigorous course work and high grades help to improve students' ACT scores, regardless of other factors such as family background characteristics, students' attitudes about school, and teacher, counselor and parental support (see ACT Research Report No. 99-4 for further information). However, a closer look at these other factors shows that many are also related both to ACT scores and to high school GPA. Students with relatively high GPAs or ACT Composite scores have certain characteristics that differentiate them from students with relatively low grade averages or ACT Composite scores. Understanding the characteristics of students and their relationship with educational achievement may help counselors, teachers, and parents as they guide and support students toward success in high school and in college.

We studied the personal, family, educational, and extracurricular characteristics of 5,489 high school students who took the ACT Assessment in either spring or fall, 1996. We first identified students from this group who had ACT Composite scores or high school GPAs in the bottom 25% of the group. These students are referred to here as "low achievers." We then identified students from the group who had ACT Composite scores or high school GPAs in the top 25%. These students are referred to here as "high achievers." We then compared the two groups on these characteristics.

Personal Characteristics

Students' perceptions of their abilities, which contribute to their self-esteem and confidence, are related to educational achievement. For example, students who see themselves as competent and effective, with a realistic view of themselves and their abilities, are over three times as likely to be high achievers as low achievers (45% vs. 13%). Students with a less positive view of themselves are more likely to be low achievers than high achievers (39% vs. 11%).

In addition, students who have a low level of motivation to succeed, or who have a high level of anxiety about their schoolwork or home environment, are five to six times as likely to be low achievers as high achievers (49% vs. 9% for motivation and 50% vs. 8% for anxiety). Students with higher levels of motivation and those with lower levels of anxiety are more likely to be high achievers than low achievers (33% vs. 19% and 31% vs. 19%, respectively).

Family Characteristics

The characteristics of students' families are also related to educational achievement. For example, as shown in Figure 1, students whose parents have less than a bachelor's degree are somewhat more likely to be low achievers than high achievers: Of students with parents with less than a bachelor's degree, 29% were low achievers and 20% were high achievers. In contrast, students whose parents have bachelor's degrees or higher are more likely to be high achievers than low achievers (44% vs. 12%).

Figure 1]

Figure 1. Educational Achievement of Students With Particular Family Characteristics

Students whose parents have incomes of less than $36,000 a year, or who have experienced three or more difficult situations at home (e.g., parental unemployment, chronic health problems, death, separation or divorce, or the need to work to help support the family) are more than twice as likely to be low achievers as high achievers. In contrast, students whose families have higher incomes, and those who have experienced no difficult situations at home, are 1½ to 3 times as likely to be high achievers as low achievers.

Of course, students have little or no control over these family characteristics. However, these characteristics might serve as one flag for identifying and assisting students who are at-risk of not doing well in school. Early intervention programs for at-risk students seem to help increase the likelihood of their success in school.

Educationally-Related Factors

Students can enhance their education by engaging in educational activities outside of the classroom. For example, students who spend less than six hours per week at home doing homework, or no time each week reading for fun, are nearly twice as likely to be low achievers as high achievers (33% vs. 18% for homework and 29% vs. 19% for reading). In addition, students who spend no time each week on a computer at home are more than twice as likely to be low achievers as high achievers (36% vs. 16%). In comparison, students who spend more time on these types of activities have a greater chance of being a high achiever.

Figure 2

Figure 2. Educational Achievement of Students Who Expressed Needs for Help

Students seem to have a good understanding of their academic capabilities and the subject areas where they need help. Figure 2 shows that students who said they needed a lot or some help with reading comprehension, study skills, or mathematics skills are two to four times as likely to be low achievers as high achievers. In comparison, students who said they needed no help in these areas were more likely to be high achievers than low achievers.

Extracurricular Activities

The amount of time students spend on other activities outside of school is also related to educational achievement. Students who spend 6 or more hours each week watching television are somewhat more likely to be low achievers than high achievers (28% vs. 22%). In contrast, students who spend less time watching TV are more likely to be high achievers than low achievers.

Students who spend no time each week on school-related extracurricular activities are more than twice as likely to be low achievers as high achievers (37% vs. 14%). Students who spend more time on school-related extracurricular activities are more likely to be high achievers than low achievers.

Discussion

As can be seen here, there are many factors that might contribute to a student's educational achievement. These are just a few examples.However, they illustrate important characteristics that are directly related to students' educational achievement in high school, and thus to their success in college. For example, students who pursue education-enhancing activities outside of school (e.g., reading or doing homework) are more likely to do well in school.In addition, students who are involved in school, not only in the classroom, but also in school-related extracurricular activities, are more likely to succeed in school than are those who are not involved. Finally, students who have a positive, realistic view of themselves and what it takes to achieve are the ones who are more likely to succeed in school. Parents, teachers, and counselors are all in ideal positions to encourage students in these and other kinds of positive behaviors that may help increase students' chances of being successful.