Factors affecting academic achievement

Editor’s Note: The following is a provocative addition to the ongoing debate about school effectiveness.

Schools in the United States vary considerably in structure, resources, and student diversity. The school-effectiveness movement tends to discount the central importance of schools’ material resources and students’ family backgrounds as determinants of academic achievement.

The movement has two competing views. One is an organizational perspective that emphasizes the importance of shared values, positive relationships, and democratic governance within schools to enhance academic achievement.

The other, referred to as “academic press,” stresses the key role that the educational expectations of school personnel play in elevating student achievement.

Both groups believe, however, that the difference between effective and ineffective schools can be attributed to actions on the part of the education system. They agree that the most important factors for raising academic achievement levels are process factors over which the schools have control.

Yet some recent research casts doubt on the relative importance of process factors. It indicates that the composition of the student body may have the greatest impact on student achievement. These study results show that the socioeconomic status and percentage of single-parent families in a school predict individual student achievement better than the student’s own race, economic level or family structure.

Stephen J. Caldas, University of Louisiana/Lafayette, and Carl L. Bankston III, Tulane University, attempted to identify the characteristics of schools most closely associated with academic effectiveness.

Caldas and Bankston analyzed the results of the Louisiana Graduation Exit Examination in all public high schools in the state. This exam is composed of five subject- area tests, three of which are taken in 10th grade and the final two in 12th grade. All special-education students were excluded from the sample. Usable test data was found for 42,000 students.

Both individual achievement and each school’s and district’s average achievement were used in the study. The race, family structure, and economic status of each student was identified. The percentage of minority, poor and single-parent families was calculated for each school and district.

The percentage of single-parent families was the single most significant factor in predicting school effectiveness. The influence of family structure on academic achievement was three times greater than race and two times greater than poverty.

Differences between districts on academic achievement were correlated with differences in percentages of single-parent families. The family structure typical of a school turned out to be more influential on a individual student’s achievement than his own family structure.

Caldas and Bankston conclude that variations in academic performance among schools are connected closely to family situations in those schools. Differences in achievement-test scores between school districts can be almost completely accounted for by variations in the percentages of single-parent families. District resources alone were not enough to counteract the negative influence of single-parent families on academic achievement. Regardless of their own family structure, students tend to do worse in schools that contain a lot of single-parent schoolmates.

Caldas and Bankston speculate that large proportions of students from single-parent families may change the climate of the school. These researchers call for additional study to determine how this factor negatively affects student achievement.


“Multilevel Examination of Student, School, and District-Level Effects on Academic Achievement” Journal of Educational Research Volume 93, Number 2, December 1999 pp. 91-100. pp. 395-415.

Published in ERN March 2000 Volume 13 Number 3

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