Abstract: Problematizing the Relationship between Teacher Ratings of Student Attention and Student Reading Scores (Society for Social Work and Research 23rd Annual Conference - Ending Gender Based, Family and Community Violence)

Problematizing the Relationship between Teacher Ratings of Student Attention and Student Reading Scores

Friday, January 18, 2019: 6:45 PM
Union Square 13 Tower 3, 4th Floor (Hilton San Francisco)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah Rabiner, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Kirsten Kainz, PhD, Research Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Background: Schools have long struggled to serve non-White students as evidenced by persistent performance gaps. Student attention is one of the most stable child-level predictors of academic performance, with lower levels of attention associated with poorer grades. Ratings of student attention represent  social processes involving peers, teachers, parents, and school, community and cultural norms and expectations for behavior. The dominant perspective on the association between student attention and academic performance holds that attention is a measure of individual capacity to sustain focus. However, claims about students’ attention may better reflect social processes than student deficits. School social workers may be especially prepared and located to address the interaction of child and classroom factors that impede student performance. 

Purpose: This paper seeks to: (1) assess the relation between teachers’ ratings of children’s attention and children’s reading scores at the end of second grade, above and beyond known covariates of reading performance; and (2) explore whether the magnitude of this relationship differs by child characteristics.

Methods: The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study–Kindergarten Cohort of 2011 public access data file was used for analyses. All analyses were conducted in Stata Version 15 using survey commands with sampling weight, strata and primary sampling unit variables. Multiple regression was used to explore potential differences in students’ spring second grade reading scores. Interaction terms were included to determine whether the strength of the relation between teacher-ratings of student attention and children’s reading scores varied across racial and gender groups.  In the case of significant interactions, we followed-up with contrasts of reading performance across racial and gender groups.

Results: Approximately 3.8 million students attended second grade in 2012-2013. Teacher ratings of students’ attention were significantly associated with students’ spring second grade reading scores. As teacher-ratings of students’ attention increased, so did children’s reading scores. A significant interaction term indicated that the relation between teacher ratings of students’ attention and children’s reading scores differed across racial groups. Across all levels of attention, spring reading scores varied by race such that White students had the highest score, followed by Hispanic students, followed by Black students. At low levels of attention, Black and Hispanic students scored several points behind White students on reading tests. Reading scores for Black and Hispanic students increased at steeper rates than for White students, suggesting a stronger relation between teacher-rated attention and children’s reading skills in second grade for Black and Hispanic students compared to White students.  

Conclusions and implications: Results of this study suggest that ratings of attention matter for all students in terms of second grade reading performance, but more so for Black and Hispanic students. The results of this study challenge the conventional notion that the solution to the problem of student attention lies solely in students’ individual capacities. Because school social workers may be more attune to the social processes at play in school relative to other staff, they can leverage their roles to contextualize teacher ratings of student attention in, and propose and implement interventions that improve student success.