Children who sit with smarter kids improve their test scores, but it’s hard to tell

Alexandra de Gendre, University of Sydney and Nicolas Salamanca, University of Melbourne

Melbourne, Nov 15 (The Conversation) School going children have a variety of issues. Almost all of us, as children or parents of children, have felt the influence of classmates, good and bad, in school.

There is a plethora of research showing that having a smarter classmate sitting next to you can help raise test scores for a child who is weaker than you. But little is known about how these peer effects actually occur among classmates. This is because the mechanisms through which classmates positively influence other students are difficult to pinpoint.

The results of our study bring us closer to understanding how classmate effects work.

We found that when a child is in a class with peers who score well, parents tend to pay more attention to them. This may partly explain why test scores rise for students in such classes. But we also found that their test scores may have increased, nothing else. For example, the amount of time a student spends studying does not increase when sitting with high-performing peers in the class.

Our study shows that the positive effects of peers occur without the actual extra effort of the student.

Combining rich data and a social experiment

Our study is the first of its kind to test several possible mechanisms underlying the transmission of peer effects.

We tested 19 different ways coworkers can positively influence their classmates. These fall into three main categories: student behavior, parental contribution, and the school environment. They cover mechanisms such as student study effort and classroom participation, aspirations and expectations of going to university, parental time, parental support and stricture, and teacher cooperation.

We used data from the National Taiwanese Education Panel survey of more than 20,000 students, parents, teachers and school administrators. The data includes student characteristics such as how many hours they study per week, parental education and how much time students spend with their parents.

We analyzed this data from middle schools in Taiwan (ages 12 to 14, or ages 7 to 9 in Australia), where students are randomly assigned to classes. In this way, we can compare children in the same school with more or less smart peers in classes.

Each student takes a standardized test at the beginning of Year 7 and another test at the beginning of Year 9. We measured the progress of these students.

We compared children who had similar test scores at the beginning of Year 7, and controlled characteristics we know made a difference in test scores. These include parental education, how much time each student spends studying, and teacher motivation. The only difference between the students we compared in terms of impact on academic outcomes was the class to which they were sent by chance.

Students in top classes had higher grades

In simple words, we can explain it like this. There are two students in the same school. One is randomly assigned to a class where standardized test scores are average in the country. And another is sent to a class where exam scores top the country. Moreover, both the students are the same.

We checked the scores of these two children after two years.

In our study, the student assigned to the top grade made more progress than the student in the average grade.

In Year 7, both students answered 31 out of 75 questions correctly on the standardized test. Two years later, the student in the average test-scoring class still answered 31 questions correctly, while the student in the top test-scoring class answered about 32 questions correctly. This equates to 2.4% more correct answers.

Although this may seem like a small difference, it is statistically significant and very similar to previous studies. However, our study goes beyond this.

what else did we find

We also showed that after two years, students in the top test-scoring class were 1.6 percent more likely to go to university than a student in the average test-scoring class. And students in the top grade were 2 percent more confident in their ability to get into and attend university.

A later finding (which has not yet been published) was that students assigned to the top class did not change the amount of hours they spent on study.

However, the parents of the child sent to a class with high-scoring peers spent more time with their child, and two years later, the average test scores found them to be more normal than the child’s parents in the class. Provided emotional support.

While our study suggests that high-scoring classmates positively influence student and parent behavior, these alone do not explain the positive effects on test scores in our data. In other words, the things that change—the aspirations and expectations, and the parents’ investments—don’t fully account for the benefits of peers achieving higher scores.

The fact that our study did not provide a clear overall picture of how peer effects actually work remains their complexity.

Collecting data on classmates’ interactions, such as discussing and coordinating tasks, is difficult, but it could be the key to unlocking the mystery of how smarter peers benefit students who score lower than themselves.

Data on teaching practices, such as pairing students for group work and the amount of material covered in lessons, can also provide new insights.

The Conversation Unity Ekta



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