Determinants of Academic Achievement

Do home background and parental socio-economic status have a stronger influence on student performance than policy-controlled schooling variables?

Term Paper 1991 31 Pages

Sociology - Work, Profession, Education, Organisation





Non-School Factors
School Factors

Part 2

Part 3




Tables within the paper:

1. Table 1A showing the scores of triplet girls at the Common Entrance Examinations (CEE) and Term 1 school examinations

2. Table 1B showing the educational attainment of parents

3. Table 1C showing the social class composition of entrants

4. Table 1D showing the relationship between family size and measured ability

5. Table 1E showing the relationship between family structure and academic achievement

6. Table 1F showing the distribution of students from rural and urban schools

Tables included in appendix:

7. Table 3A showing comparative CEE and Term 1 scores for high achievers

8. Table 3B showing comparative CEE and Term 1 scores for middle achievers

9. Table 3C showing comparative CEE and Term 1 scores for low achievers

10. Table 4 showing all factors

11. Table 5 showing the percentage of students from urban and rural schools entering the Portsmouth Secondary School (P.S.S) from 1984-1990

12. Table 6A showing the range of CEE scores for the sample

13. Table 6B showing the range of term 1 averages for the sample

14. Table 7 showing the comparative figures of the CEE for 1981-1990


‘The Determinants of Academic Achievement’ has been the subject of much discussion in the past and up to recent times. Extensive studies have been done and diverse conclusions have been reached. Earlier research was centered on developed countries, but recent times have seen an emphasis on developing countries and this has given rise to much controversy over the extent to which school and non-school factors influence academic achievement and the educational benefits of increasing expenditure on policy controlled schooling variables.

The observation has been made by Simmons and Alexander (1980) that home background or parental socio-economic status generally has a stronger influence on student performance at primary and lower secondary grades than the policy-controlled schooling variables. Their conclusions were drawn, in part, from a review of a number of studies conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in developed countries. Using the education production function (EPF) approach, Simmons and Alexander sought to equate the relative cost of school inputs to the relative value of outputs. Their conclusions have been variously supported, challenged or contradicted by previous and subsequent research carried out in the Third World.

The purpose of this study is to examine the validity of Simmons’ and Alexander’s conclusions through a comparative analysis of a sample of students from the 1990 Common Entrance Examination (CEE) intake of students of the Portsmouth Secondary School (P.S.S) in Dominica.

Data for the study was collected from various sources of which the main ones include the University of the West Indies library, the Ministry of Education in Dominica, the P.S.S records and a questionnaire administered to students.

It is hoped that the conclusions of this study will reveal certain factors that are peculiar to the Dominican context and emphasize the need for more studies on the Caribbean region. One is inclined to be skeptical about generalizations made about developing countries. The research on which these generalizations are based spans a number of countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean which have been grouped collectively as Third World countries. Saha (1983) makes the important observation that “the determinants of educational achievement vary systemically among societies because of the web of economic, political and cultural ties that exist between societies”. Even within the Caribbean, differences in socio-economic structure prevail and as Theisen (1983) observes, formulating policy for one country from indicators that emerge from different settings is problematic because of the risk of predicting the impact of causal variables outside off their cultural contexts. Studies carried out in Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Dominica, among others, have produced conclusions which highlight the dangers of extrapolating to one region the models and policies that apply to another.

The factors that determine academic achievement have been classified into two broad groups: student characteristics and outside factors. The latter has been subdivided into school and non-school variables.

Student characteristics include innate endowment, perception of self, achievement motivation and attitude towards work. School variables include teacher effects such as qualification, training, experience, attitudes, sex, age and socio-economic status; and school characteristics such as the type of community to which the school belongs, the area in which it is located (rural or urban), its academic record, size, enrollment, physical conditions and the facilities available. Non-school variables are many and encompass family related variables such as parental education, attitudes towards education and socio-economic status (SES); environmental variables such as conditions within the home, child rearing practices, area of residence (rural/urban) and type of community; and finally, religious and ethnic variables.

The paper will be divided into three main sections: Part 1, Review of Literature on the Determinants of Academic Achievement, Part 11, the Study and Findings, and Part 111, Conclusions and Recommendations.



Non-School Factors

“Coleman’s conclusion regarding the little apparent effect of school inputs on differences in student performance was later supported by Jenks and his colleagues who, in 1972, stated that the most important factors in explaining outputs was input; namely the characteristics of the entering students themselves. For Jenks, ‘everything else… is either secondary or irrelevant.” Saha (1983).

The above quotation, supported by Douglas (1964) who observes that innate ability might well be the strongest predictor of academic achievement, focuses attention squarely on the fact that regardless of external factors, the strongest predictor of achievement is the child itself. Douglas explains further that in addition to innate endowment the degree of mental discipline and application to work is usually the key to high student performance. This point is further supported by Lockheed, Fuller and Nyirongo (1989) who postulate that students’ achievement varies in relation to the degree of effort they expend on their work and the extent to which they feel capable of succeeding. They go on to examine motivational factors and refer to the conclusions of Coleman (1966) and Brookover et al (1979) that children performed at higher levels when they perceived that their successes were due to their own efforts and when their efforts were recognized and rewarded by their teachers.

Clearly, if class background and school variables are controlled it will be noticed that the best students are those who strive to excel. An analysis of the scores of triplet girls at the 1990 CEE examinations in Dominica and again at the end of their first term at secondary school is a case in point. These students come from identical home backgrounds and are of similar genetic make-up yet attain different scores both in the CEE and end of Term 1 examinations. Table 1A shows the differing scores of these triplet girls at the CEE and Term 1 examinations.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

*This column indicates position out of the entire Form 1 population.

Much of the existing research on home background (family and environmental variables) was carried out in developed countries. Among them are Banks (1958) and Douglas (1964) who agree that social class is an important predictor of educational attainment. They posit that working class parents place a lower value on formal education than do middle class parents and that these values are passed on to their children who, with little encouragement and motivation and with the belief that their class restricts them to certain jobs and positions in society, have no real incentive to achieve. Working class parents have been described as being fatalistic in the sense that they view upward social mobility as unattainable as far as they are concerned. Their value system in itself creates “a self-imposed barrier” to an improved position Hyman (1954), and is reflected in their children’s poor performance at school.

Conversely, according to Banks and Douglas, middle class parents have higher aspirations for their children to whom they pass on their values. They show more interest in their children’s work and emphasize the value of moving on to higher education. Consequently, the children of middle class parents acquire different values and have higher incentives to work than those of working class parents.

Studies have also revealed differences in the child rearing practices of middle and working class parents. Haralambos (1985) makes the observation that unlike working class parents, middle class parents place great emphasis on high achievement, demand more from their children, encourage them through educational games, correct speech and behavior, rewards for high achievement and individual attention. In this way they create a home environment which is congenial to learning.

Banks (1958) also refers to Wilson (1954) who posited that the level of educational aspiration varied according to the social class composition of the school. He concluded that the levels of educational and occupational aspirations - and in the long run, achievement - were higher, the more middle class the school context.

Apart from the attitude of parents, it has been shown that social stratification in itself leads to inequality in educational opportunities and ultimately in outcomes Haralambos (1985). This is highlighted in the work of Douglas (1964) where he describes children of working class backgrounds as being restricted to modern secondary schools while the grammar school places are taken by middle class children. Even in Barbados, there was a tendency in past years for middle class children to attend the older secondary schools while the working class children were channeled towards the ‘newer’ secondary schools.

On the whole, class variables can be said to exert a stronger influence on educational outcomes in the developed than in the developing world. In less developed countries (LDCs) differences between social groups are not as sharply differentiated as they are in developed countries Saha (1983). In Dominica specifically, class divisions are merely superficial and upward mobility is based mainly on income. Since education is the key to higher occupation and income then it is obviously, the main factor in determining social status.

In general, third world countries are not truly class societies to the extent that the more developed countries are; therefore, the degree to which social class would influence educational outcomes would be significantly lower there.

More pertinent to a third world context is parental income. Musgrave (1979) observes that income plays a vital role in determining educational outcomes. The greater the income of parents; the greater their capacity to provide good learning environments and high educational opportunities for their children.

Evidently, students who are economically deprived, who undergo schooling under conditions such as hunger, lack of textbooks, poor lighting, crowed homes and abnormal family situations and who lack encouragement from parents are at a distinct disadvantage as far as performance is concerned. These home factors have been referred to by Fraser (1959) cited in Averch et al (1974) as environmental process variables (EPV) and are considered to be powerful predictors of student performance.

The educational background of parents and their attitude towards education are other significant determinants of achievement. Educated parents usually place a high value on education and this is easily communicated to their children. Reid (1976) aptly sums up the influence of parental education in the following statement:

“The interactive behavior that exists seems to be that schools which are high on attainment not only have parents who were themselves successful at school, but who are currently taking interest in the outcomes of schooling with respect to their children. These parents’ interest in schooling becomes meaningful because (1) they maintain their own reading interests and help their children in school work; (2) they seek schools with high teacher qualifications; (3) they live in progressive communities and have good jobs.”

Parental encouragement is therefore closely related to parental education as is suggested in the above quotation. Hence, the more educated parent is more conscious of the value of parental encouragement in motivation for students. Douglas (1964) states that a child’s attitude towards work is greatly molded by that of its parents. It was found that students achieved at higher levels when parents asked questions about their work and visited their schools to enquire about their progress.

Douglas (1964) Goodacre (1970) and Reid (1976) are unanimous in the opinion that a negative correlation exists between family size and student performance. Douglas describes as large, families consisting of more than three children and goes on to show that even among the middle class, performance tended to decline with every addition after the third child. In general, it is evident that the larger the family, the greater the demands on parents’ income; consequently, their ability to create stimulating learning environments becomes limited.

Family structure is also important as a predictor of achievement particularly in the Third World. Performance has been found to be higher among students who reside with both parents. Reid (1976) cites Jenkino (1958) who found that legitimate children rated significantly higher than the illegitimate of the same socio-economic level on IQ attainment and school attendance. A possible reason for this might be that children residing with guardians may be deprived of affection and encouragement and are sometimes kept away from school to do household chores. Further, children from abnormal homes also suffer considerable psychological setbacks. Children who find themselves in the center of family conflicts and those who are only ‘another one’ among a number of others left in the care of aging grandparents are often victims of low self-esteem. They place little faith in their capacity to achieve and, as a result, achieve at very low levels.

Another important background variable is the type of community to which the child belongs. Reid (1976) cites Thorndike (1951) who stresses the economic and sociological facts of a community as predictors of intelligence and achievement. There is much evidence to show that the higher the socio-economic status of the community, the higher the value placed on education, the higher the occupational aspirations and consequently, the greater the motivation to succeed at school. In addition, as Knox (1956) (also cited in Reid (1976) points out, “good communities tend to attract good teachers” so that there is an interaction effect between teacher quality and type of community.

Douglas (1964) argues that the type of neighborhood might even be a stronger predictor than home conditions. This conclusion came out of his observation that middle class children, even when home conditions were poor were likely to mix with and be influenced by middle class children who belonged to homes where education was valued in contrast to manual working class children who were only allowed to mix with children of their poor neighborhood where there was little interest in education.

Closely related to type of community (sometimes a major determining factor of community type) is the area of residence. Students from urban communities are said to have distinct advantages over their rural counterparts. These rural/urban differentials are prevalent in the Caribbean and efforts are being directed at finding measures to equalize opportunities for rural as for urban students. Manley (1963) and Bacchus (1966) in their studies on Jamaica and Guyana respectively, have gone a long way into providing insight into the differences that exist between urban and rural communities and their concomitant effects on educational opportunities and outcomes. Their studies reveal, among other things, that rural communities are less progressive that urban ones in terms of range of occupations, educational opportunities and public amenities.

Research has provided ample evidence to support the fact that background variables or non-school factors exert considerable influence on academic achievement. There still; however, exists a great deal of controversy over the extent to which these factors influence student performance in the developed as opposed to developing countries.

School Factors

The school factors to be examined in this study have been limited to teacher qualification and training, school and class size, and school facilities.

The issues of major concern in current debates on achievement studies are the policy controlled schooling variables with particular emphasis being placed on teacher training and student/teacher ratio. These debates are of particular interest to large financial institutions such as the World Bank which undertake funding with respect to such policy controlled variables as mentioned above.

Early research in developed countries appeared to be unanimous in the conclusion that school factors had less effect on educational outcomes that background factors. The findings of Simmons and Alexander (1980) are consistent with these conclusions and further infer that the determinants of achievement in developing countries are the same as in developed countries.

Their conclusions find support in Averch et al (1974) who, using an input-output approach, have determined that school resources cannot affect outcomes significantly since the knowledge of the amount of the various resources that a student has received does not give an accurate prediction of his outcome. They further contend that inexperienced teachers do not appear to produce students whose performances are worse than that of students of experienced or highly qualified teachers.

There is, however, much evidence from recent research which contradicts Simmons’ and Alexander’s findings as far as developing countries are concerned. In fact, Reid (1976) observes that school factors influence outcomes independently or in conjunction with community factors. He cites Lynn (1959) who stated that variables such as school size and facilities are directly related to community factors in that large schools tend to attract good teachers as well as children of varying abilities thereby providing highly stimulating learning environments. With regard to school size, Reid also cites Thorndike (1951) who stresses the importance of large schools which, according to him, have better teaching aids and facilities.

Class size has also been given strict consideration by educators and policy makers. Educators generally view large classes as undesirable in the sense that they have a negative impact on student performance. Again, Reid cites Fleming (1959) who postulates that large classes limit student-teacher interaction thereby demotivating both parties. Simmons and Alexander (1975) have; however, found evidence which renders this assertion inconclusive. They refer to reviews carried out in the less developed countries (LDCs), some of which found that large classes did not have a negative effect on performance while others found that they did.

Husen et al (1975) contradict Simmons and Alexander on the question of teacher characteristics, among other things. They contend that “trained teachers do make a difference” and that teacher qualification is positively related to student achievement.

Saha (1983) also presents strong arguments against Simmons’ and Alexander’s findings. He cites Heyneman (1976) who challenges Simmons and Alexander on the grounds that their methodology was inappropriate and their conclusions unrealistic. According to Heyneman, their findings are unacceptable having been based on educational processes in developed countries which greatly differ from those in the LDCs. Further, Heyneman and Luxley (1983) contend that in developing countries whose per capita income is low, the effect of school and teacher quality on academic achievement in primary schools is comparatively greater than in developed countries and conversely, that the lower the per capita income, the weaker the influence of pupils’ SES on achievement. Their conclusions, in contradiction to those of Simmons and Alexander, clearly indicate that in the LDCs the quality of schools and teachers are a predominant influence on student learning outcomes. They emphasize particularly, the influence of teacher qualification and certification as positive predictors of academic achievement.

Finally, Saha (1983) refers to his own recent review and another by Avolos and Haddad (1981) whose findings indicate that school and teacher variables, in particular teacher certification and credentials, exert a considerable influence on students’ performance. He further refers to the World Bank’s assessment of reviews on achievement studies which acknowledge that “international reviews of studies dealing with effectiveness of teachers…indicate that selection and training of teachers are important means of improving performance”.

Undoubtedly Simmon’s and Alexander’s statement regarding the disadvantage of increasing expenditure on policy controlled variables meets with much contradiction in recent reviews. As Heyneman and Luxley have pointed out the skepticism over the efficacy of educational investments is premature in view of the fact that many LDC’s have been largely unaccounted for in studies on the subject and because paradigms developed for industrial societies cannot be realistically applied to developing countries.

From an examination of various reviews on achievement studies the writer would venture to suggest that school and non-school factors appear to impact differently on societies of different structure. In fact, Schiefelbein and Simmons (1981) have stated that the effects of teacher training and certification vary from region to region. Although their statement does not embrace other school and non-school factors it does lend some support to the writer’s own conclusions.

Finally, the writer would like to suggest that the Third World should be subdivided into smaller groupings consisting of countries with similar socio-economic and socio-political structures if conclusions about Third World countries are to be more realistic. It must be recognized that every country has characteristics that are internal to itself so that although separate policies cannot be developed for each, one should aim as closely as possible at doing so.

Part 2


In Dominica the CEE is not compulsory and only students who have met the requirements set down by their primary schools are entered for it. A child may make 2-3 attempts between the ages of 10-12. Out of some two thousand candidates who sit the examinations every year only about six hundred are selected for secondary school. The number of entrants is based on the number of available places at the six government and assisted secondary schools on the island.

On an average the P.S.S takes in between 60-80 students from the CEE each year. While the 1990 CEE overall intake ranged from scores of 390-325, the P.S.S intake ranged from 375-325. The P.S.S entrants include students from two urban and eight rural schools. The sample of students for this study therefore, comes from varied socio-economic backgrounds and different types of communities. Out of a total of sixty-seven entrants the study will examine a representative sample of forty-five students; the first fifteen, middle fifteen and last fifteen on the pass list. These will be referred to as high, middle and low achievers respectively. The writer has limited activities to an analysis of four main areas: the CEE scores, the Term 1 averages, the SES of students’ parents and the area of residence. The variables to be considered for SES include parental occupation, family size and family structure (both parents and other). The writer will attempt to make assumptions about family income based on the occupation of the parents. Parental occupation will be determined by the father’s occupation in the case of married or common law unions and by the mother’s in the case of single parents. It is further described on the basis of a 5-level occupational coding scheme used by Miller (1971) included in the appendix as No. 2A. Miller has also classified families into high, middle and lower class based on parental occupation.



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Determinants Academic Achievement Factors Determine Home background Parental socioeconomic status Student performance Policy controlled schooling variables Academic achievement




Title: Determinants of Academic Achievement