Only GPA outranks attendance as a performance indicator

Only GPA outranks attendance as a performance indicator

(Ill.) After grades, attendance habits among Chicago middle school students provided the best indicator of later academic performance among a range of measures, according to new research.

Background characteristics, study habits and grit – all indicators that educators across the country have used to reconstruct performance models – proved to be only modestly successful predictors, according to a study released this month by the University of Chicago.

“There is a very large population of students who struggle with the transition from the middle grades to high school, raising concerns that high school failures are partially a function of poor middle grade preparation,” the university research team said. “As a result, middle grade practitioners are grappling with questions about what skills students need to succeed in high school, which markers they should use to gauge whether students are ready to succeed in high school and beyond, and whether it is possible to identify in middle grades students who are likely to struggle in high school and college.”

The analysis, paid for by a grant from the Gates Foundation, was based on evaluation of nearly 100,000 students enrolled in Chicago public schools between 2007 and 2009, although some results came from smaller groups depending on the question being tested.

The finding, for instance, that grades and attendance were the two best predictors of how middle school students would perform in high school was based on the cohort of incoming high school freshmen in the fall of 2009 – about 20,000 students.

To measure changes in attendance patterns between the fifth and eighth grade, the team needed to look at three cohorts or 99,300 students.

Report authors – Elaine Allensworth, Julia Gwynne, Paul Moore and Marisa de la Torre – said their key findings were consistent with other major studies that have established a strong correlation between good attendance and higher grades and students  graduating from high school and going on to college.

A nuance from the Chicago study, however, emphasizes the importance of grades in comparison to standardized test scores – a reverse of how most lawmakers and public policy experts have traditionally weighted the two indicators.

“The relationship of test scores to high school and college graduation becomes small, once we take into account students’ GPAs,” the team said. “It is students’ grades that ultimately matter more for high school and college graduation than their test performance because grades capture more of the factors relevant for student achievement than test scores.”

Attendance has also shown repeatedly to be a strong predictor of student performance. The Chicago study – similar to one that looked at schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York and three districts in California – found that course failures and low attendance in middle grades “were the strongest predictors of high school failure or dropout.”

The study comes as educators in many states are looking at new and different ways to measure student performance outside the standardized test score. The Obama administration has encouraged the transition through several federal grant programs including the Race to the Top competition.

Still, the Chicago evaluation suggests that few other indicators are important once GPA and attendance are taken into account.

“Background characteristics (e.g., race, gender, neighborhood poverty, free lunch eligibility, being old-for-grade, and special education status) are all related to high school grades and test scores, but they do not tell us any more about who will pass, get good grades, or score well on tests in high school, once we take into account students’ eighth-grade GPAs, attendance, and test scores,” the authors said. “Students’ misconduct and suspension records in middle school are also not predictive of high school performance, once we take into account their attendance, grades, and test scores. Likewise, students’ reports of their study habits in eighth grade, and their responses on a grit scale measuring perseverance in the middle grades, are not predictive of their performance in high school beyond their current grades and attendance.”