Student Well-Being

Engagement, Safety, Health Linked to Achievement in Global Data

By Nirvi Shah — December 11, 2012 5 min read
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Schools with discipline and safety problems are not conducive to high achievement, results from international math, reading, and science tests released today show.

While perhaps that seems like an obvious statement, scores on the exams support the correlation between disruptive school environments and student achievement. The results come from the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS in reading, administered to 4th graders, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, in math and science, administered to both 4th and 8th graders. Read more about student math and science performance here, and reading results here.

For a little background, PIRLS was first administered in 2001, and in 2011, 53 “education systems” participated (including entire countries’ public school systems, but also specific school systems within countries, like Hong Kong or Flemish Belgian schools.) TIMSS was first administered in 1995, and in 2011, 57 countries or “education systems” participated in the 4th grade tests, and 56 countries participated in the 8th grade tests.

In mathematics, science, and reading, test administrators found that students who attended schools with disorderly environments and who reported more frequent bullying had much lower achievement than their counterparts in safe, orderly schools. The good news: 61 percent of students attended schools with very few discipline or safety problems.

Surveys administered with the exams found that bullying in schools is on the rise, especially cyberbullying (although that runs counter to international research released earlier this year.) Nearly half of 4th and 8th graders reported never being bullied.

Students who were successful on TIMSS because of their positive attitudes did better on the math exam, although not many 8th graders who took it had an upbeat approach. Nearly a third of students surveyed said they “do not like learning mathematics.” Internationally, more than half of 4th grade students said they like learning science. As a group, those students had higher average achievement than students who “somewhat” like learning science or flat out don’t like it. Compared to 4th graders, substantially fewer 8th graders reported positive attitudes toward learning science—only about a third like it, and this was reflected in lower scores among students who dislike the subject and those who care for it.

In reading, three-fourths of 4th graders reported being motivated readers; the 5 percent of students who reported a lack of motivation had substantially lower reading scores than their peers. Yet only about a quarter of 4th graders reported actually liking reading, based on their reaction to statements such as “I read only if I have to,” “I like talking about what I read with other people,” and “I would like to have more time for reading.” Average reading achievement was highest among students who were confident in their reading and the lowest scores were among those who were not.

Delving into science

Of science subjects, students preferred biology and earth science to chemistry or physics. In all four subjects, students who said they like the subject had higher average achievement than those who said they do not like it. Science achievement was also higher for students who were confident in their science abilities, measured by their reaction to statements such as “My teachers tell me I am good at science” and “Science is harder for me than for many of my classmates.” In 8th grade, only 20 percent of students felt confident in their science ability.

Students also were queried about how valuable they find science and what they thought of statements such as “I think learning science will help me in my daily life” and “I need to do science to get the job I want.” Internationally, 41 percent of 8th graders whose countries have a general or integrated approach to teaching science placed a high value on science and another 33 percent “somewhat” valued it. But in countries where science is taught in different courses, only about a quarter of students reported that they value the subject. These countries devote more time to science instruction.

Student Engagement

Could student attitudes toward reading, math, and science have something to do with how stimulating they found their lessons? TIMSS 2011 collected information about student engagement, and 4th and 8th graders who were the most engaged in their lessons had the highest achievement—but only 25 percent of 8th graders reported being engaged. Students were asked how often their teachers used certain instructional practices intended to interest them and reinforce their learning, such as summarizing the lesson’s learning goals, questioning to elicit reasons and explanations, and bringing interesting things to class. Internationally, 69 percent of 4th graders had teachers who tried to use these practices to engage them in most lessons, while just 18 percent of 8th graders reported teachers brought interesting materials to class.

More than 70 percent of 4th graders reported that they had teachers who tried to engage them during most lessons, as did 80 percent of 8th graders. Here again, the more students were engaged, the better they did on the exams, with 45 percent of 4th graders and 29 percent of 8th graders reporting high engagement performing better than peers.

In reading, the same held true, with engaged students showing higher achievement than peers who weren’t engaged, though only 8 percent of students reported being not engaged and the rest saying they were engaged or somewhat so. Most 4th graders—71 percent&reported that their teachers tried to make lessons engaging.

Nutrition and sleep

The studies also measured students’ nutrition and health, and the majority of 4th and 8th graders were in classrooms where instruction was “not at all” limited because students were lacking in proper nutrition. These students had higher average mathematics achievement than peers in classes where instruction was limited because of a lack of basic nutrition. And at least half of 4th and 8th graders were in classrooms where sleep deprivation played some role in students’ lives.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.