Factors promoting math achievement among at-risk elementary students

iStock_000000145315XSmallEducational research describes poverty and minority status as factors that place students at risk of poor academic performance. Indeed, there has been a tendency to label whole groups of students “at risk” when in fact many of them achieve well, report Geoffrey D. Borman, University of Wisconsin/Madison and Laura T. Overman, Johns Hopkins University.

These researchers sought to improve our understanding of the individual- and school-level factors that enable some students from minority and low- socioeconomic backgrounds to become high achievers. Using data from “Prospects: The Congressionally Mandated Study of Educational Growth and Opportunity,” they compared white, African-American and Latino students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds who were performing significantly better or worse than expected on mathematics achievement tests in sixth grade to understand why students with similar risk factors vary greatly in achievement. Mathematics was chosen because it is a subject that tends to be influenced more by school than home factors.

Individual Factors Affecting Academic Resilience

On the basis of this national data, Borman and Overman identified the individual characteristics of academically successful elementary school students from minority and low-socioeconomic backgrounds. They also studied the features of schools that promote high achievement in this student population. Results reveal that while minority students are exposed to greater risks and fewer positive school conditions than white students of similarly low SES, the same individual and school characteristics promoted academic achievement in all low-SES students regardless of race or ethnicity.

Regardless of a student’s race, greater engagement in academic activities, more confidence in their mathematics’ abilities, a more positive outlook toward school and higher self-esteem were features that characterized high achievers. The consistency of these findings across racial/ethnic groups revealed that all four factors were important in distinguishing high achievers among poor white, African-American and Latino students. Of these four factors, student engagement had the greatest positive effect on achievement.

School Factors

Researchers studied the student populations and school resources to determine their effect on achievement of poor and minority students. Results reveal that the social and academic backgrounds of an elementary student’s peers appear to have little effect on her academic performance. School resources were not strongly linked to academic outcomes in this study. Borman and Overman caution, however, that their measurement of these two factors were not very precise. They question whether these factors might vary significantly between individuals within a school and affect individual performance while not appearing as a significant factor for the school as a whole.

Characteristics of “effective school” and “supportive school community” models were studied as well. The most powerful school-level factors for promoting academic achievement among poor and minority students appear to be stronger and more supportive relationships with their teachers and a safe and orderly school environment. While both models include an emphasis on a safe and orderly environment, the effective school model emphasizes factors such as the amount of time spent on instruction, clear achievement-oriented goals, and high expectations for student achievement – factors that were less strongly linked with achievement of this poor and minority population. The supportive school model stresses community, an ethic of caring for one another. Supportive school communities stress student teacher relationships, which had the greatest impact on achievement in this study. This model assumes that progress toward improved achievement begins with efforts to foster healthy social and personal adjustment of students. Borman and Overman’s analysis of the data lends greater support for the supportive school community model in increasing achievement of all students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.

These researchers point out that because they studied students only in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, they did not take into account differences in early childhood experiences that may have influenced cognitive development. Individual third-grade math scores formed the baseline against which they m e a s u red higher or lower-than-expected performance in mathematics at the end of sixth grade.

Borman and Overman sought to identify individual and school characteristics that foster higher than- expected achievement among at-risk elementary students. They found that attentiveness to personal and social adjustment and student academic engagement are keys to improving the achievement of at-risk students. This was true for all races and ethnic groups, but school-level factors had a particularly powerful effect on the achievement of African- American students. These researchers report that school-based initiatives that actively shield disadvantaged students from the risks and adversities within their homes, schools and communities, are more likely to foster successful academic outcomes that other school-based efforts. In particular, strong and caring relationships with teachers and safe school environments appear to be vital for poor and minority students’ achievement.

“Academic Resilience in Mathematics Among Poor and Minority Students”, The Elementary School Journal, Volume 104, Number 3, January 2004, pp. 177-193

Published in ERN April 2004 Volume 17 Number 4

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