Study: Grades and Attendance More Telling than Tests

Published December 2, 2014

Researchers say much-emphasized standardized test scores may not be the best indicator of a student’s later academic success. Educators should instead focus on grades and attendance if they want to get their students through high school and onto college.

According to the recent study by University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, grades and attendance in middle school are far more revealing than test scores in predicting high school outcomes. The study looked at data collected from Chicago Public School students ranging from fifth to eleventh grade.

The study shows just how important grades and attendance really are in middle grades, even though standardized tests remain the benchmark of academic potential in schools across the country.

Teaching to the Test

Kelly Hatton, a fifth grade teacher at the Dulles School of Excellence on Chicago’s South Side, says these tests measure only a single skill set. Hatton worries prepping students for standardized tests takes away from much-needed lessons to raise reading levels.

“Standardized tests don’t reflect what my students do and do not know, because they just test their reading and writing ability,” Hatton said. “But since many of my students have low reading and writing skills, their scores are frequently very low. These tests are not indicative of their knowledge or potential.”

Hatton says it is important to spend the time to try to help students raise their test scores because the district holds them in such high regard. Failure to pass standardized tests in middle grades could hold students back later on.

“What you really want to do is meet kids where they are,” Hatton said. “But it is in their best interest to do well on the test even if the time could be better spent working on foundational skills.”

Importance of Attendance

Although foundational skills may sometimes have to take a backseat to test preparation, Hatton says Chicago Public Schools recognizes the importance of attendance. At the Dulles School of Excellence, which Hatton says is adjacent to one of the city’s most dangerous blocks, low attendance rates are a big problem. The school has implemented many initiatives to address the problem, including incentive programs and encouraging community involvement.

In many cases, high test scores do coincide with good grades and attendance, the study found. However, when test scores are looked at independent of other factors, they prove to be far less significant. A middle schooler who tests poorly but has few absences and high marks is better poised for academic success than a good tester with many absences and a low grade point average.

The study shows high test scores in middle school often predict the same in later grades, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the student will be ready for college. School districts that focus only on test scores could be missing this point if they fail to look at the whole picture, the study says.

Julia Gwynne, a senior research analyst at the University of Chicago and one of the authors of the study, says early intervention is critical. Attendance and homework affect grades and can tell more about a student’s academic habits and future than a standardized test.

“The key takeaway with this study is that if you have students in the middle grades that are chronically absent, which means their attendance rates are less than 90 percent, or if your students are failing in those middle grades, it’s pretty likely that they are not going to do well in high school,” Gwynne said.

Difficult to Predict

Although the study authors hope these findings will drive home the importance of grades and attendance before high school, they can’t predict all outcomes, Gwynne said.

“Just because students were doing well in eighth grade doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do well in high school,” Gwynne says. “But the path to high school graduation and career readiness begins much earlier than many people think.”

Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Learn More: 

“Looking Forward to High School and College: Middle Grade Indicators of Readiness in Chicago Public Schools”, University of Chicago, by Elaine Allensworth, Julia Gwynne, Paul Moore, and Marisa de la Torre, November 2014,