Achievement Issues

Submitted by Mary Decker

From Chapter 5 – Cognitive Ability: Intelligence, Talent, and Achievement


Achievement can be a difficult concept to define.   According to our text, achievement is “a measure of knowledge based on grades or standardized tests” (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  However, clearly differentiating achievement from general intelligence is problematic, given their high degrees of correlation.  Achievement tests aim to measure knowledge which an individual has already attained, rather than his/her capacity for learning (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

Patterns of achievement are detectable is some areas.  For example, achievement levels tend to be fairly consistent across childhood.  In general, girls receive higher grades than boys across grade levels.  However, males are usually overrepresented in advanced math and science classes (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

This may be partly due to females’ interest levels and self-perception in these areas.  One study states that, “beginning at age 12, girls begin to like math and science less and to like language arts and social studies more than do boys (Kahle & Lakes, 2003; Sadker & Sadker, 1994). They also do not expect to do as well in these subjects and attribute their failures to lack of ability (Eccles, Barber, Jozefowicz, Malenchuk, & Vida, 1999). By high school, girls self-select out of higher-level, ‘academic-track’ math and science courses, such as calculus and chemistry” (Blume and Zember, 2011).

Socioeconomic status creates a much wider discrepancy.  According to the American Psychological Association, SES is defined as something that is, “measured as a combination of education, income, and occupation. It is commonly conceptualized as the social standing or class of an individual or group. When viewed through a social class lens, privilege, power, and control are emphasized” (APA, 2009).  Those with lower SES are inclined to have lower achievement, as is corroborated by hundreds of studies.  This may be so for a variety of reasons, including the quality of parenting and opportunities available to families of higher SES as opposed to lower SES.  Children from lower socioeconomic statuses may also have less opportunity to learn (OTL), with less-qualified teachers (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).  Initial academic skills, which are often learned in the home, are stunted due to persistent stress and lack of literacy. (APA, 2009).

Achievement differences also occur across ethnic groups.  Asian children tend towards higher achievement, followed by White students.  African-American and Latino students in general achieve at lower levels.  One cause of this apparent gap in achievement is the link between ethnicity and SES.  Latino and African-American students are generally more likely to have a lower SES.  Schools that contain these minority subgroups (ALANA) also tend to have disadvantages, such as overcrowding and a lack of qualified teachers.  These groups could also have a lack of cultural capital, or may suffer from cultural mismatch (Bergin & Bergin, 2012).

Some experts posit that disengagement from school occurs for minority ethnicities when they become more cognizant of the conditions under which their group entered the country or were historically treated.  For example, one cultural framework states, “because African American populations immigrated to the United States under conditions of oppression and opportunity constraint, they developed a collective group identity that rejects institutions that are dominated by the oppressive mainstream culture, including the American educational system. As a consequence, youth’s identification with a Black identity came to entail a rejection of a pro-achievement orientation, including attitudes and behaviors associated with being successful in school” (Chavous, 2011).  Teachers must constantly be using best practices to combat these achievement issues that we face.


Bergin, C. C., & Bergin, D. A. (2012).  Child and adolescent development in your classroom. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.
Blume, L.B. and Zembar, M.J.  (2011).  Gender and academic achievement.  Retrieved on September 16, 2013 from
Chavous, Tabbye. (2011).  Ethnic identity and academic achievement.  Retrieved on September 16, 2013 from
Education and socioeconomic status.  (2009).  American Psychological Association.  Retrieved September 16, 2013 from

Discussion Questions:
1.  How can educators encourage female students to pursue advanced classes in math and science?
2.  How do you create an atmosphere of achievement press in your classroom?
3.  Have you ever had a student with low achievement because of his/her perceived attitude of unfairness towards his/her particular ethnic group?  How did you handle this?
4.  In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

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13 Responses to Achievement Issues

  1. anonymous50 says:

    How can educators encourage female students to pursue advanced classes in math and science?

    The fact that girls typically feel discouraged from pursuing advanced classes is multi-faceted and enduring, therefore, it is unlikely that a single solution will be effective in altering that long-standing trend. However, one facet that we as educators can address, or at least be cognizant of, is the importance of emotional and social relevance for adolescent girls. During this developmental period, when girls typically turn away from STEM studies, they are age-appropriately relying heavily on relationships and connected-ness for making decisions and striving for ipseity. There is, then, a socio-emotional component to their preferences in all their pursuits, including academics. Studying the dispassionate STEM subjects does not typically feed this important component of who they are, especially if most of the teachers they encounter in these advanced subjects are male and, understandably, teach as such.

    Anecdotally, I had an interesting discussion with one of my nieces this summer about this very topic. As a high school sophomore, she is already an off-the-charts talent in math, physics, and computer sciences, but ‘hates’ the classes and has no intention of pursuing a career in any one of the STEM fields, despite encouragement from school counselors, teachers, and her parents. As we discussed this, she shared that she finds the classes ‘boring’ (although challenging, but not difficult) because they are all about ‘facts’ but don’t really mean anything to her personally. Delving into this further with her, what I gleaned was that she doesn’t see how anything she is learning in these advanced STEM classes “makes [her] a better person” — they just don’t make her “happy”, as opposed to the writing in language arts (not even one of her designated strengths), which she finds more personally satisfying. If we are going to encourage girls like my niece, then it would seem that we have to first address their social-emotional needs to connect them with the sciences, technologies, engineering fields, and mathematics on a more personally relevant and fulfilling level by teaching these subjects as less sterile number-crunching and applying them in more social or humanitarian contexts.

    How do you create an atmosphere of achievement press in your classroom?

    In my classroom, I create an atmosphere of achievement press by clearly delineating my expectations, based on clear standards defined by the school, my personal standards, and the levels and subjects I am teaching. These are shared in detail, with both parents and students, and we establish a ‘contract’, holding all parties (including me) accountable for their role in achievement of the goals and standards. I also establish, through guided discussion, a set of class rules to facilitate accomplishing the goals, and put in place equally enforced consequences (not punishments) for failing to comply with the standards of the class, academically or socially. We frequently discuss the school standards and expectations, my obligations in guiding the students toward meeting or exceeding those standards, and the students’ roles in achieving the established goals. Finally, we make a point of celebrating school-wide, class-wide, and individual (when appropriate) successes, acknowledging the fruits of our collective and individual labors.

  2. Sinclair says:

    2) What are the qualifications for students to enter a gifted program? Should they be changed?
    Most programs use a combination of testing, teacher recommendation and involvement in other activities. Many programs may be rigid in that they are not adaptable for the amount of giftedness involved and require large blocks of time that does not substantially benefit the student. Instead of developing the child, they may just provide extra work or they may overwhelm the child.

    Our children had gone to a private Christian school for elementary school. They then went to public school for the rest. Halfway through my oldest first year of public school, a teacher recommended him for the gifted program and we were shocked. We thought we must have an Einstein on our hands and he was underachieving. He went for testing and I will never forget the call from the local testing officer. She said, “Ben, your son is eligible for services.” By her tone, I thought I must have misunderstood and they were testing him for remedial services. She quickly corrected herself and explained the gifted program’s benefits as she saw them.

    We agreed to try it, but soon dropped out. The time commitment and expense for the payoff was just not there. He hated it and we had to travel to a neighboring community several times a week. My impression was that it was more like a club that allowed parents to brag about their children (the projects were just not that difficult). The curriculum seemed to be “on the curve” so they could get a mix of students. Now that I have had several classes in testing, I can infer from his test scores that he probably was not qualified based on scores alone. They based the acceptance for the program on not only test scores, but also other “subjective measures” according to the handout.

  3. Brooke says:

    In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

    As a teacher, we can do a lot of things in our classrooms to promote student achievement. We can develop creative lesson plans, we can provide interesting learning materials, we can create the most engaging projects and assessments, we can encourage till our faces turn blue, but there is always one factor that can over-ride and undermine our teaching… Socioeconomic Status. Even though we cannot personally change the status of a student with low SES, we can do many things to support them and encourage their success in the classroom. Students with low SES may not have parents who are able to regularly support their education and take time to have high-quality discussions. As a teacher, I can make sure that I use any extra free time I have to spend with these students to supplement some of what they are missing at home. Having book talks and engaging in conversations about what they are learning in other subjects is beneficial to help the students to connect what they are learning in other subjects. I can also encourage students to visit the library more often and help outside of class with homework and provide additional practice and study skills. Our school participates in an online study program where students practice and quiz themselves on the CCSS. I have groups that stay during lunch and have also arranged to stay after school once per week to provide students with time and resources to work on this project. I know that they may not have computers/internet access or adult guidance at home to help. Although we cannot do anything to change their low SES, there are certainly ways we can encourage these students. I don’t think any high-quality teacher would refuse going the extra mile for these students.

  4. Andrea says:

    In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

    Eleven out of eighteen years of my teaching career was in a school that was primarily comprised of students with low SES backgrounds. When I first came to the school, students performed last academically in the district of nine middle schools. So many students were coming to the middle school with math and reading skills below grade level. Teachers and staff of the school were trained in several behavioral programs/techniques (love and logic, girls and boys town behavior model). Getting the behaviors under control was first and foremost. One out of every 4 students had juvenile officers and gang activity was quite a problem so getting behaviors under control was first the top priority for teachers and staff. Once teachers became better at handling and adapting to problematic behaviors, academics slowly began to improve. There was additional reading and math reinforcement classes added to the schedule to help provide more practice for struggling students. The three schools (elementary, middle & high school) developed a partnership with Yale University and Drury University to incorporate the Comer Model into the schools. The main premise of the model was to unite community, home and school. There were activities to invite the community and parents into the school in order to promote a sense of ownership of the school. Teachers continued to build positive relationships with parents and students. The decrease in discipline issues allowed for more effective teaching in the classroom and increase rigor, which resulted in test scores increases. The school moved from bottom of the list in academics to the middle.

  5. Jimmie Jo says:

    In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement in students with low SES backgrounds?

    I work in a rural school with a large population of students with low SES backgrounds. We are blessed that we do not have major behavioral issues in our school. In my classroom, I have found that the best way to help to promote academic achievement is to build a relationship with the parents. I want parents to feel comfortable in asking questions or coming to me with concerns. Parents are more prepared to help their children at home if they know what to do! Parents are also more likely to support me if they feel that I love and want the best for their children. I also never assume that students have the tools to complete a task at home. If they need scissors, glue, crayons they may take them home. I am sure to send books home to read instead of depending on parents to provide them.
    Another way to promote academic achievement is to establish and maintain high expectations. I expect my students to do THEIR very best, and do not settle for less. I make sure that my students know that it is my job to answer their questions and guide them to become the best students that they can be.

  6. Nicole Gaffney says:

    In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

    I also work in a rural area surrounded by different areas of low and high SES. In my three years of teaching I have only had a handful of children with low SES each year. This makes it easier for me to see out supplies and spend more time making sure my students are achieving. One of the most important things I make sure to provide for my students is a breakfast or snack. Even though we offer free and reduced lunches and breakfasts at my school, not all of our qualified students take advantage of them. Many times, they are so worried about GETTING to school in the mornings they don’t make time for breakfast or a to pack much of a lunch. I use many resources around the community for snacks or breakfast bars and I know that it helps my students behave better, and gets their minds going.

    I also agree with Jimmie Jo as in I try to build positive relationships with families. Not only do I try my best to communicate with parents, but I also seek out older brothers and sisters. I’ll give suggestions to everyone on things that they can do at home. I send home extra books that they can borrow and other learning materials (games, flash cards,etc) I find that many of my young students have low achievements because they do not have the resources at home to reinforce the concepts learned in class. I also send home supplies such as markers, crayons and paper so that my students can do their best work at home! As for school, my students are encouraged to do their best and persevere in all areas.

  7. Katie Williams says:

    In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

    All of my experience is in urban schools, so I have only worked with students who come from low SES backgrounds. A lot goes into serving these students and promoting achievement, beginning when they walk through the door. We make sure they all eat a decent breakfast and get a hot meal at lunch because for some it is the only time they eat. We discuss achievement and success every day. We help them make connections between learning. The teachers at my school also make strives to build strong relationships from school to home. We even have a Parent Facilitator who creates programs for parents and acts as our liason between school and home if the need arises. We teach our students to try their best and encourage reading and great study skills at home. We believe that we aren’t just educating the students, but we are also educating the community. We maintain high expectations and communicate it by having students invested in the data process and making sure the standards are clear and consise for students. For example, our students use I Can statements that are connected to CCSS to explain their learning. We have RBHS (Rehabilitative Behavior Health Services) to assist with behavior problems in our classrooms. Gifted and Talented programs as well as after school tutoring are available for students. We also are partners with the American Reading Company, focusing on reading achievement. I think we have enough resources at our fingertips to make the leaps we need to continue to close the achievement gap at our school.

  8. Karen says:

    How can educators encourage female students to pursue advanced classes in math and science?
    In my school this is something we focus quite a bit on. We are a school that focuses on math and science. Not surprisingly we are male dominated in terms of our student population, with a ratio of about 70 to 30. When we have recruitment fairs (we are a magnet school) we really try to focus on encouraging girls to come to our school. Each year we have more and more girls attend the school, but we are still male dominated. I think one of the best ways to encourage females to pursue advanced classes in math and science is to provide them with female role models in these subjects at an early age. In my experience, these subject areas are heavily taught by male teachers. This gives females students the view that math and science are better suited for males. Hiring and keeping female math and science teachers gives females the idea that women can excel in these subject areas as well. It also gives girls a figure that can represent themselves and they can model themselves after as they continue through high school and college. Sometimes these teachers are also mentors that can guide females through a male dominated environment because they have experienced it themselves. I also think that we need to find opportunities to engage females in successes in these subject areas at a young age. The more interesting they find the subject area and the more real success they have had in them, the more likely they are to continue pursuing those subject areas with a high degree of passion. I don’t believe this means providing girls with artificial means of success, but I think it means using teaching styles that will help females become more interested and more connected to science and math. All in all I believe the key to encouraging females students to pursue advances classes in math and science is to start at a young age. Once students reach the later years of high school they likely have a track they are set on achieving. However, engaging students in successful and motivating experiences in elementary and middle school will more likely guide them towards math and science in the future.
    ~Karen S.

  9. Amanda Morris says:

    4. In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

    This year I have been working with special education students, and primarily all of my students have a low SES status. The hardest part is overriding those “bad habits” and negative thoughts that are instilled through home life. Some things that I have done include modeling what it looks like to be a good friend, and how to treat other teachers. Continuously thanking/praising students for great manners, noticing as many positive actions as possible.
    Negative self-esteem causes huge issues in the learning environment. Students are quickly to give up, get frustrated, and not want to even try. Building a positive self-esteem is hard when the students are getting the opposite in their home life.
    Also, finding out the REASON for underachievement can help you counteract. I was working with a student that was constantly getting in trouble for not turning in homework. His name was on the board, and the teacher got onto him in front of the class. I felt awful for him. Initially he lied about his homework to me, but once I offered to call his dad, he finally broke down and told me he hid it in his bed. We called dad and had the student tell his dad. His dad then told us he sometimes struggled to do the homework with him, and we worked out an agreement that if he couldn’t help his son and his son couldn’t figure it out, to leave us a note and we would do it with him first thing in the morning. The student is now proud to turn in his homework and is more respectful to all his teachers.

  10. Autumn says:

    1. How can educators encourage female students to pursue advanced classes in math and science?

    I believe that as educators we can do a number of things to preemptively address the achievement gap in math and science and, by extension, increase female enrollment in advanced classes within these domains. I feel that one of our major failures in this area is that we wait far too long before targeting this problem. By middle school, when scores begin to plummet, societal stereotypes, as they relate to gender, have already been fully internalized. In my experience, well-intentioned messages of support and external encouragement are not as effective once adolescence sets in. Therefore, it would be of immense benefit if we could begin early on with our students, keeping this issue in mind during classroom discourse and activities.

    One of the most effective strategies that I have read about in recent years involves removing gender from the equation entirely when we speak of scientists and mathematicians. For instance, in lieu of making categorical statements which are meant to be empowering, but often coming off as condescending, such as “girls are great scientists, engineers, and mathematicians,” that we devote equal time to focusing on the contributions of both female and male scientists alike. I think that when girls observe the magnitude of scientific endeavor offered by each sex, that they are better able to eliminate gender categories in their minds when considering a particular occupation. This thereby allows them to see the career for what it is, instead of a field dominated by a single sex. This measure has the potential to significantly bolster girls’ participation in advanced math and science classes.

    Although it is a sensitive issue, I think that women instructors could also be doing a lot more to aid in this undertaking. As an educator of young children, math has always been one of my favorite subjects to teach. Unfortunately, many of my female colleagues feel differently, which from what I can ascertain is largely attributable to their own perceived shortcomings in the subject. Tragically, I have looked on as these instructors gradually transmit their own math anxiety to their students (girls in particular) in a very subtle, yet far-reaching manner. I find these teachers to be very pleasant and caring individuals; however, I think that they are abysmally unaware of the adverse effect that they are having upon their students’ achievement. I am further appalled at the dismally low math requirements that serve the “math core” for many elementary education programs throughout the country. Enthusiasm is contagious and absent the essential knowledge, confidence and ability needed to make the content come alive, the less likely one will be able to inspire their students to continue rigorous coursework in the field.

    • anonymous50 says:

      I am in complete agreement and appreciate your insights, including (unfortunately) your observations about the subliminal messages of anxiety and perceived shortcomings in mathematics and sciences that many female teachers unintentionally convey to their students. The revelation for me, however, was your suggestion of the unintended negative effect of the categorical statements of ’empowerment’ that well-meaning educators bandy about . I have long noted the condescension inherent in these girl-empowerment statements, and frequently questioned their effectiveness, but I had not yet considered the sort of ‘expectancy effect’, if you will, in pointing out just how FEW females there are in comparison to males. Food for thought.

  11. Janet says:

    4. In what ways have you promoted improvement in academic achievement for students who come from low SES backgrounds?

    I am a middle school special education teacher and I co-teach a Community Connections Class with a high school special education teacher. Our motto for the class is “Real learning for Real Life” and we take our students into the community each week to practice the lessons we have learned in the classroom. Frequently,we have students enrolled that have a low SES status. Years ago, we learned the importance of taking our students into the community to provide them with real experiences and background knowledge to use in other content areas. We realized if they were not familiar with their own community, it was very difficult for them to grasp an understanding of ideas based outside of our community. Many of our students have not experienced a sit down restaurant, recreational pursuits such as bowling or the movies, or entered many businesses in our town. When we go into the community, we are helping the students make connections and giving them the opportunity to learn about the multitude of local resources.

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