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PISA Provides Peek at How Attendance, School Climate May Affect Achievement

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Both a growing body of research and intuition suggest that non-academic factors like school climate, attendance, and classroom management can affect a student's academic achievement.

Student survey results that accompany the newest Program for International Student Assessment results, released on Tuesday, provide international data to show how those factors correlate with student test scores.

Unsurprisingly, PISA results show that poor attendance and a distracting learning environment correlate with lower test scores in nearly every country that participates in the exam.

It's worth noting here that correlation doesn't always equal causation and rushing to conclusions without exploring a full range of factors (a trend my colleague, Liana Heitin, refers to as "malPISAnce") is a bad idea. It's also important to note that students around the world may have different reference points for what they consider distracting or harmful in their learning environments. But it's instructive to take a look at the data because it pulls from a large number of students from all sorts of learning experiences.

As my colleague, Sarah Sparks, notes in her story about the test results: "Overall, American students have not improved in either reading or science performance since 2009, and they have declined in math performance during that time, putting the United States slightly below the international average." Could these non-academic factors play a role in turning the tide?

How Learning Environment Affects Achievement

"One of the goals of teachers is to create a classroom environment that is conducive to learning," the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a report on the PISA scores. "This requires, first and foremost, keeping noise and disorder at bay and making sure that students can listen to what the teacher (and other students) say and can concentrate on academic tasks. Meaningful and visible learning is more likely to happen in these learning environments."

The survey accompanying PISA asked students about their science lessons, asking them to gauge how often the following happen:

  • "Students don't listen to what the teacher says"
  • "There is noise and disorder"
  • "The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down"
  • "Students cannot work well"
  • "Students don't start working for a long time after the lesson begins" 

Their answers were combined to create an "index of disciplinary climate" with an zero being an average score. Students most commonly reported that their peers don't listen to what the teacher says and that there is noise and disorder in the classroom. On the correlation between the index and achievement, OECD reports:

"In all countries and economies, except Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires (Argentina) (hereafter "CABA [Argentina]") and Korea, students who reported a better disciplinary climate in their science lessons perform better in science, after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools (Figure II.3.7). On average across OECD countries, every unit increase on the index of disciplinary climate in science lessons (equivalent to a standard deviation across OECD countries) is associated with an increase of 11 score points in science after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools."

The organization also reports that, on average, students in schools considered "advantaged" or of higher levels of wealth scored higher on the disciplinary climate index than their peers in schools considered "disadvantaged."

How Attendance Affects Academic Achievement

As I've reported before, students with lower attendance rates often score poorly on standardized achievement tests. According to OECD:

"Skipping a whole day of school is negatively associated with performance in science in all countries and economies except Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, and a large part of that relationship remains even after accounting for socioeconomic status. On average across OECD countries, students who had skipped a whole day of school at least once in the two weeks prior to the PISA assessment score 45 points lower in the science assessment than students who had not skipped a day of school (33 points lower after accounting for the socio-economic profile of students and schools)." 

Other Factors

OECD asked principals to report on problems in their schools. Given a list of options, principals said student truancy and staff resisting change were the problems that hinder student learning the most. Principals said student use of alcohol or illegal drugs and students intimidating or bullying other students hinder student learning the least.

Across most participating countries, reports of "student-related" problems, like truancy or bullying, appeared to have a stronger correlation with poor test performance than "teacher-related" problems, like staff resisting change, the report says. This table shows how reports of various factors correlate with performance on the PISA science test, after controlling for students' and schools' socioeconomic status.

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These non-academic issues are getting a more intense look in the United States lately as the Every Student Succeeds Act, the country's new federal education law, calls upon states to use a broader range of indicators in their accountability systems. Many states are considering measures of school climate and chronic absenteeism as they determine what makes a successful school.


Further reading about attendance, school climate, and academic achievement:

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