Behavior and motivation best predicts college readiness

Behavior and motivation best predicts college readiness

(Texas) Findings from a new study on student performance adds to growing evidence that behavioral patterns – including attendance and discipline records – are as good a predictor of college readiness as academic achievement, maybe even better.

Researchers from Pearson’s Research & Innovation Network applied a screen of 140 student measures drawn from data collected from a national, longitudinal study of some 12,000 students over a 12-year period beginning when they were in eighth grade.

“What we found is that behavior and motivation together are more predictive of college readiness than achievement variables alone,” said Kimberly O’Malley, senior vice president at Pearson School Research. “The team also showed that we were able to predict college graduation better than (student scoring) on the SAT or the ACT and we could do it three years earlier.”

News of the findings come as many states grapple with reconstructing school and student performance models that rely on more than just test scores to make the evaluation. The Pearson study shows that a broad array of variables that are already being recorded by schools can be used to express not only whether a middle school student is on track for college – and whether interventions are needed – but also potentially, how schools overall are performing in that preparation.

Using data collected from National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, researchers Matthew Gaertner and Katie McClarty broke the 140 measures into six categories:

  • Academic achievement: including such things as course grades in English, mathematics, science, and social studies as well as eighth-grade standardized test scores in the same subjects and enrollment in honors courses, advanced enrollment in Algebra I, and grade-skipping or retention.
  • Motivation: focuses on “affective qualities and students’ self- efficacy, including locus of control, academic self-concept, effort, and postsecondary goals,” the authors said in an April article about the study, published by the National Council on Measurement in Education.
  • Behavior: includes absences and suspensions, as well as tardiness, discipline referrals, and incomplete assignments.
  • Social engagement: involves indicators like participation in clubs and after-school activities, along with relationship measures such as the number of times a student speaks with a teacher or guidance counselor about academic issues.
  • Family circumstances: as defined by household income, family’s attitude toward school, family structure (e.g., single-parent home), and parents’ education level.
  • School characteristics: include school sponsored clubs, teacher qualifications, school- wide safety measures, and demographics (e.g., percentage of students eligible for free and reduced price meals).

The robust performance matrix stands in sharp contrast to how most of the education community has previously defined college readiness, dominated by test scores and grades. In most cases, students are already juniors or seniors in high school before they take the SAT or the ACT – the traditional benchmarks of college fitness – leaving them with little time to adjust or improve.

The Pearson team started out wanting to evaluate a student’s academic career far earlier and asked if there were predictors they could look at while a child was still in middle school.

“We started out three years ago with the question, can we give teachers, students, parents and community leaders information about whether a student will be able to meet their academic goals for college?” said O’Malley. “And if the information showed they couldn’t – what could the student do about it?”

The work is intended to build on efforts by school districts and policy makers more than a decade ago that used some of the same measures to build early warning systems around high school dropouts. While those systems helped improve the number of graduates, the researchers pointed out that getting a high school diploma isn’t necessarily a good predictor of how the graduate will perform in college.

Indeed, a 2009 study found that the majority of students – 60 percent – who graduate high school and enter community college need remediation before they are ready for college-level work.

O’Malley said the finding that behavior and motivational measures were more predictive of later academic success than test scores wasn’t necessarily surprising.

“We know that if you are going to go on to college, you have to show up and you need to do your homework and you need to control how you behave while you are in class,” she explained.

If the matrix of performance measures might be useful in helping states building accountability systems, O’Malley said their intent was to provide a diagnostic tool.

“I would love to see it, for example, as a tool for parent-teacher conferences,” she said. “As a former teacher that did a lot of those conferences, it would be really useful to have something that looks comprehensively. Some of the factors relate to me as a parent, some relate to the school and some to the student. So collectively we’d be looking at all these factors that we know reflect readiness and then we can think about how and where to intervene.”

The research network is a unit of NCS Pearson, which in turn is part of Pearson PLC, based in London and one of the world’s biggest suppliers of academic materials and services. Although the performance matrix might one day become part of a product, O’Malley said they currently have no such plans.

...read more