Early schooling variables that influence 1st grade achievement of at-risk students

Recent research has established that success in the early years of school is important to success later on. However, there is still relatively little known about the factors that influence the achievement of low income and minority children in the early elementary years.

Because the percentage of both low-income and minority children in our school population is increasing, and because previous research indicates that there are considerable differences in the early schooling process between poor, urban, minority students and middle class, white children, research with this population is needed.

Arthur J. Reynolds, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, is studying low income, urban, minority students (1470 Black, 69 Hispanic) in order to identify those factors which influence their achievement in the primary grades. Results of previous research by Alexander and Entwistle (1988) concluded that “black students find it more difficult than white youngsters to recover from a shaky start. In this sense, the transition to full-time schooling is both more important and more problematic for minority youngsters.”

This and other studies have concentrated on status variables, such as socioeconomic background or estimates of children’s ability. However, Reynolds is particularly interested in identifying variables that are susceptible to educational intervention; factors which educators and parents can influence to increase the achievement of at-risk children in the early grades.

Cognitive readiness for kindergarten

This interim report identifies factors which directly or indirectly influence first grade achievement in reading, math and socioemotional maturity. Reynolds postulates that cognitive readiness of children entering kindergarten, as well as several intervening kindergarten and first grade variables, have a significant impact on first grade achievement.

He observes a complex network of variables, some of which directly affect achievement and some others which indirectly affect achievement by their action on other variables. Reynolds’ study tried to answer these two questions:

1. Does readiness for kindergarten have a significant effect on first grade achievement?

2. What are the effects of intervening variables including motivation (defined as “persistence to succeed”), parental involvement and mobility on first grade achievement?

Data was collected from Fall 1985 through Spring 1987. Children in 26 schools (94% of whom qualify for lunch subsidies) were selected for the project. Information was collected from student records, teacher questionnaires and test files.

One limitation of this study is that only teacher reports were used to measure variables, such as motivation and parent involvement. Reports from parents and children may have been more revealing. By the end of this first stage of the project, 88% of the original children remained in the district. This remaining population was judged representative of the original sample. Reading and math achievement were measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. Other measures of cognitive ability were used as well.

Persistence a powerful influence

The cognitive readiness of children entering kindergarten appears to indirectly affect first grade achievement in all areas. This suggests that kindergarten readiness and, therefore, preschool programs are critically important for this at-risk population. Also, early study results indicate that several other factors intervene between the child’s readiness when entering kindergarten and his or her achievement at the end of first grade.

Reynolds reports that the degree of persistence which a child exhibits on tasks by the end of the kindergarten year appears to have a particularly powerful influence on first grade achievement. In addition, early school success appears more likely to occur when there is parental involvement which helps maintain motivation. Also, children who remain in their kindergarten school for first grade learned more in reading and math than those who changed schools. All three of these factors are, at least partially, within the power of families and schools to control.

The kindergarten year is a time when school achievement and motivational patterns are still forming and, therefore, can be influenced in a positive way by both parents and educators.

Although preschool experience directs children toward success, it is now clear that it cannot guarantee that success. Developing motivation to succeed, encouraging parental involvement and stability in school placement during kindergarten and first grade seem particularly important for these students from poor, urban, minority backgrounds who are at-risk educationally.


“A Structural Model of First Grade Outcomes for an Urban Low Socioeconomic Status, Minority Population” Journal of Educational Psychology December 1989 Volume 81, Number 4, p. 594-603.

Published in ERN March/April 1990 Volume 3 Number 2

One Response to “Early schooling variables that influence 1st grade achievement of at-risk students”

  1. jimbo

    Excellent article which helped me back up an argument. Thank you very much for this information and I would love to receive more. I am an inner-city middle school teacher in Rhode Island.


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