Predicting Students’ Academic Trajectory from Third Grade Test Scores

Dan Goldhaber, Malcolm Wolff, and Timothy Daly recently published a CALDER working paper titled, “Assessing the Accuracy of Elementary School Test Scores as Predictors of Students’ High School Outcomes.” They employ datasets from Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Washington to track sixteen cohorts of students from third grade through high school, enabling them to investigate how accurately early measures of student achievement predict later outcomes, namely high school test scores, advanced course-taking, and graduation.

The topline finding was a strong correlation between a student’s place in the third-grade test distribution and that youngster’s performance on high school math tests. Moreover, there were consistent and strong relationships between third grade math test scores and each of the high school outcomes of interest. For example, the poorest performing students (those who scored in the lowest decile on the third grade math test) scored 48–54 percentile points lower in the high school math test distribution, were 45–50 percent less likely to take an advanced course, and 11–21 percent less likely to graduate. Soberingly, these relationships held even when researchers omitted eighth grade test performance, suggesting that third grade performance sets the tone for a student’s entire school career. Still, adding eighth grade scores into the model increased the predictive power while not changing the predictions themselves.

Belying the idea of school as a pure meritocracy, race and poverty had a negative effect on a student’s academic trajectory. Even students who performed in the top percentiles on third grade tests were less likely to maintain that performance level as time went on if they met certain demographic criteria. Notably, free-lunch-eligible students who performed at the top decile on the third grade math test were only about as likely to graduate from high school as non-eligible students scoring in the second decile. In short, socioeconomically-disadvantaged students who show academic prowess early on are not guaranteed to continue on that trajectory, as might be the case with their more affluent peers. 

If it’s true that third grade test scores are strongly predictive of vital high school outcomes, both middle school testing and any interventions that arise from it are seemingly far too late to help students and schools who need it the most. In addition, one might view schooling or other social service interventions as successful if they decrease the predictive power of 3rd grade tests, as this would imply that interventions are ensuring that early achievement does not become academic destiny.

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