Three-year achievement gap between poor pupils and their better-off peers

Research published by the Sutton Trust shows that for schools in the UK, the achievement gap in maths, science and reading between the top-performing pupils from low and high socio-economic backgrounds is around two years and eight months.

Global Gaps by Dr John Jerrim of the UCL Institute of Education analyses the 2015 test scores from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) PISA tests to assess how well the top 10% of pupils in the UK’s schools are doing. In England, the highest-achieving pupils score above the median score for OECD countries in maths, science and reading. However, in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, high-achieving pupils perform, on average, below the OECD median scores.

For girls in England, the achievement gap in science and reading is even greater. High-achieving girls from low socio-economic backgrounds are around three years behind their more advantaged, high-achieving peers. This is around eight months greater than the equivalent gap for boys for science, and nine months greater for reading. There is no significant gender difference in maths, with an achievement gap of around two years and nine months for both girls and boys.

Source: Global Gaps: Comparing socio-economic gaps in the performance of highly able UK pupils internationally (February 2017), The Sutton Trust

Predicting success in STEM

The Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest has conducted a literature review to determine what predictors from primary school of postsecondary STEM success have been identified in peer-reviewed studies, with a focus on predictors for Hispanic students.

The review defined postsecondary STEM success as enrollment in, persistence in, and completion of postsecondary STEM majors or degrees. Twenty-three relevant studies were identified, but only four examined factors predictive of success specifically for Hispanic students.
Key findings from the review included:

  • The number of high school maths and science courses taken and the level of those courses predict postsecondary STEM success for all student subgroups, but racial/ethnic minority students were less likely than White students to take the highest level maths and science courses.
  • Interest or confidence in STEM showed statistically significant predictive relationships with students’ postsecondary STEM success, and the relationships were evident as early as middle school. Racial/ethnic minority and White students had similar interest and confidence in STEM.
  • Statistically significant high school predictors of postsecondary STEM success included schools’ academic rigour, percentage of students enrolled in college preparatory programmes, students’ satisfaction with their teachers, and levels of parent participation.

Source: A Review of the Literature to Identify Leading Indicators Related to Hispanic STEM Postsecondary Educational Outcomes (2016), Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest.

Targeting EALs with science

A recent large-scale randomised controlled trial, published in the American Educational Research Journal, has examined the impact of a science curriculum with a focus on pupils with English as an Additional Language (EALs).

The study was implemented in 66 schools (33 treatment and 33 control) across three school districts in one south-eastern US state. During the 2012–2013 school year, the project involved 258 teachers (123 treatment and 135 control) and a total of 6,673 students. The trial evaluated P-SELL, a science curricular and professional development intervention for fifth-grade students with a focus on EALs.

The P-SELL curriculum’s approach aligns with state science standards and high-stakes science assessments administered at fifth grade. It is based on an inquiry-oriented approach and addresses the learning needs of EALs by providing guidance and scaffolding for English language development. Teachers are supported with a teacher’s guide and professional development workshops. The workshops incorporated critical features of effective professional development: content focus, active learning, coherence, sufficient duration, and collective participation.

The study used both the high-stakes state science assessment as an outcome measure and a researcher-developed science assessment that was administered at the beginning and end of the year and allowed for a pre-measure of science achievement. The study examined the effect of the intervention on science achievement for all students and for students of varying levels of English proficiency (EAL, recently reclassified EAL, former EAL, and non-EAL).

The results found significant and meaningfully sized average intervention effects on the researcher-developed science assessment scores (effect size = +0.25) and the state science assessment scale scores (+0.15). The P-SELL intervention had significant and meaningfully sized effects for EALs (+0.35) on the researcher-developed assessment. The intervention effects were positive but not statistically significant for EALs (+0.12) on the state science assessment, although other subcategories (non-EALs and former EALs) were positive and significant. This is the first year of a three year study, and future years will provide information on the long-term impact of the teachers’ professional development.

Source: Impact of a Large-Scale Science Intervention Focused on English Language Learners (2016), American Educational Research Journal.

Stories about struggling scientists improved science grades

A new study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology looks at the impact of “struggle stories” on success in science.

Students who think that success in science is only possible with exceptional talent may become demotivated and, for example, turn away from the idea of studying science in college.
In this study, 402 students in ninth and tenth grades (Year 10 and 11) in New York City schools read one of three kinds of story about an eminent scientist who:

  • struggled intellectually (eg, made mistakes and overcame them through effort);
  • struggled personally (eg, was poor or lacked parental support, but overcame it); or
  • made great discoveries (a control condition, without struggle).

The intervention lasted five weeks. Student achievement was measured using grades from the six-week sessions before and after the intervention, and motivation was measured using a pre- and post-test. Students in both of the “struggle story” conditions had higher grades than did those in the control condition, though the difference was not significant. There was no measurable difference on the motivation of the groups, but analysis of interviews showed that the students felt more connected to the scientists.

Source: Even Einstein Struggled: Effects of Learning About Great Scientists’ Struggles on High School Students’ Motivation to Learn Science. (2016), Journal of Educational Psychology.

Science achievement gaps start early and persist

A study published in Educational Researcher looks at the profile of science achievement gaps to the age of 14.

The researchers used data from the US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K), which followed 7,757 children from kindergarten (Year 1) to eighth grade (Year 9). In kindergarten, the children completed a general knowledge test covering the physical, biological, and social sciences. In the following years, there were further assessments of science, reading, and mathematics achievement, as well as approaches to learning and parenting quality.

Large gaps in science general knowledge were already evident when children entered kindergarten. These gaps continued into first grade (Year 2), third grade (Year 4), and ultimately eighth grade. Between third and eighth grade, lower reading and mathematics achievement was also predictive of the persistence of these science achievement gaps.

The authors argue that interventions may need to be implemented very early in children’s development to counteract these early general knowledge gaps. Improving reading and mathematics achievement and behavioural self-regulation, and decreasing school racial segregation may also contribute to reducing the science achievement gaps.

Source: Science Achievement Gaps Begin Very Early, Persist, and Are Largely Explained by Modifiable Factors (2016), Educational Researcher.

Thinking, Doing, Talking Science

A new report, published by the Education Endowment Foundation, has described a randomised controlled trial to evaluate the effectiveness of a programme that aims to make science lessons more conceptually challenging, more practical, and more interactive. The report found the approach, called Thinking, Doing, Talking Science (TDTS), appeared to have a positive impact on attainment.

The trial involved 41 schools in England, 20 acting as a control group, with 655 Year 5 pupils from the other 21 schools receiving the intervention. Their teachers received four days of professional development across 18 months, with training in a repertoire of TDTS strategies aiming to encourage pupils to use higher order thinking skills. For example, pupils are posed ‘Big Questions’, such as ‘How do you know that the earth is a sphere?’ that are used to stimulate discussion about scientific topics and the principles of scientific enquiry. The teachers were also given time to work on TDTS with colleagues.

The evaluation, carried out by the IEE, found that overall Year 5 pupils in schools using the approach made approximately three additional months’ progress. The programme had a particularly positive effect on girls and on pupils with low prior attainment, as well as a positive impact on pupils’ attitudes to science, science lessons, and practical work in particular.

National test data will be used to assess the English and mathematics outcomes of participating pupils and to measure the long-term impact of the approach, and a final report will follow in 2016.

The study is one of ten new reports published by the Education Endowment Foundation.

Source: Thinking, Doing, Talking Science: Evaluation Report and Executive Summary (2015), Education Endowment Foundation.