Frequently, children are labeled “at risk” because they belong to disadvantaged groups in our society. Research is now questioning the validity of this practice. James S. Catterall, University of California/Los Angeles, criticizes both how researchers and educators conceptualize risk and how they address it in students. He points out that we describe and classify conditions of risk, but have done little to design or implement successful remedies.
Equating risk with membership in disadvantaged groups leads to labeling whole groups of students at risk rather than identifying those who are actually experiencing difficulties academically or socially. Publicly reporting standardized test scores reinforces labeling by group. Catterall believes we are labeling many children who are not at risk at all. He calls for greater emphasis on preventing dropping out of school rather than describing the problem, and increased attention to programs that help all children learn rather than identifying achievement gaps. In addition, he suggests development of programs focused on the idea of resilience — studying who succeeds despite risk-associated conditions, and why.
Risk and resilience in individual students
Catterall looks at risk from the standpoint of individual performance. Using the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) data, he identified eighth-graders who lacked confidence about finishing high school and whose grades were poor (C’s and lower). His goal was to identify the individual students who were at risk because of lack of commitment and poor academic performance. He also sought to understand resilience by studying students who improved their academic performance and commitment.
NELS represents a national sample of almost 25,000 eighth-graders. These students’ achievement scores, attitudes about motivation, family background and language, extracurricular activities, and perceptions of teachers and schools were first studied in 1988. Follow-up studies were done at two-year intervals. About 6 percent of the entire NELS sample dropped out of school between eighth and tenth grades. Dropping out of school was shown to be due most often to non-success and alienation. About 10 percent of all dropouts had been expelled, while almost 20 percent said they dropped out in order to work. About 25 percent of the girls who dropped out did so because of pregnancy.
From the entire NELS population, Catterall identified 16,000 students who had the longitudinal data he needed to analyze how they responded to poor-performance and alienation risk factors over a two-year period. Of this group, 4,000 students or 18 percent of the eighth-graders, lacked confidence that they would finish high school. Nearly 7,000 students, or 26 percent of the total reported poor grades (C’s or lower in English). Eighth-graders who were at the bottom third in achievement and who expressed doubts about graduating from high school were defined as “at risk” for the purposes of this study. Catterall examined how these students were doing two years later.
Factors that influence resilience in academic performance
This study focused on factors influencing resilience in academic performance and commitment to school. Catterall defined school commitment as the tendency of eighth-grade students who expressed doubts about finishing high school to be significantly more positive about graduating by grade 10. Academic resilience is the tendency to achieve at a higher level (measured by grades in English) in 10th grade than in 8th grade.
Activities involvement was measured by the amount of time spent in extracurricular activities. Also, students were asked whether teachers in their school cared about students, whether they listened to what students had to say, and whether the school discipline system was fair. In eighth grade, indicators of family support for school success included the presence of books in the home, providing a specific place to study, and maintaining limits on television watching. At tenth grade, the indicators of family support included rules about homework, the frequency of parents’ checking on homework, parents’ discussing homework with their children and parents’ participation in parent-teacher associations.
Mobility in performance and commitment to school
This study demonstrates that there is a lot of mobility and a high degree of recovery from low performance or low commitment to school. Catterall believes these results should encourage educators to adopt positive expectations for more students. Fifty-eight percent of eighth-graders improved their grades significantly by tenth grade, while only 9 percent performed less well. And a large number of students showed increased confidence in finishing high school. Compared to the initial 18 percent who doubted they would graduate, two years later only 7 percent reported they might not graduate.
Catterall’s results confirmed previous research in some areas. Students who reported more involvement in extracurricular activities were more resilient. Those who reported higher levels of teacher responsiveness to students, and who described their schools as having fair discipline policies, were more likely to increase their commitment to graduating. Hispanic students were less resilient in terms of attitude toward graduation, particularly in schools with a significant amount of gang activity. However, Hispanic students from families that supported education by discussing and checking on schoolwork or who spoke English at home were more resilient. Family support for school had a modest influence on African-American students’ commitment to graduation, but it was not a significant factor for white students.
Gender was not a factor in either commitment or academic resilience within any group. Family socioeconomic status and parent education level were associated with increasing commitment only among white students.
Academic resilience as measured by grade improvement was associated with family support and the schools’ responsiveness to students. More grade improvement was seen in students whose families limited the amount of television they could watch. Student involvement in extracurricular activities also influenced academic resilience.
Performance-based risk assessment
Catterall states that conceptualizing risk as performance-based rather than as characteristic of certain disadvantaged groups is important. It allows educators to identify individual students in need of help. Catterall concludes that this study is encouraging because it challenges the prevailing belief that adolescent achievement is relatively fixed.
This study revealed that students in the early years of high school show a lot of mobility and improvement in their grades and commitment to school. By these indicators, more than half of the eighth-graders identified as at risk were no longer at risk by tenth grade. Academic resilience rates were higher for Hispanic, African-American and Asian students than for white students. In addition, many of the factors influencing resilience in populations at risk for failure are within the reach of educators and policy makers.
Resilience appears not to be a function of either socioeconomic status or membership in a disadvantaged group. These factors therefore should not be used to label children, Catterall concludes. This data should help teachers think more optimistically about struggling students, and help students think m o re positively about their chances for success. Catterall believes that these attitude changes can lead to even greater improvement in student motivation and achievement. In addition, because teacher responsiveness, extracurricular activities, and parent support systems all positively influence the resilience of children who are doing poorly in school, educators and parents must address these issues.
“Risk and Resilience in Student Transitions to High School,” American Journal of Education, Volume 106, February 1998, pp. 302-333.
Published in ERN May/June 1998 Volume 11 Number 5