Academic Destiny Determined Since Elementary School
BY ISABELLA HILL '25
High schoolers who struggled to read in elementary school are four times more likely to drop out of school. Although low literacy in elementary school does not solely predict a person’s academic destiny, experts recognize a strong connection between poor literacy and dropout or crime rates. For the most part, cognitive and social-emotional development occurs in elementary school. Therefore, a person’s habits, interpersonal skills, and report cards during these primary years foreshadow grades and class placement in middle and high school. Ultimately, elementary school—through the validation a student receives, placement test results, and class levels—predicts academic destiny: the extent to which a person succeeds academically in high school and beyond.
Especially during their formative years, students internalize messages from authority figures. Self-esteem directly correlates with overall academic success, and if a child has a damaged self-perception in elementary school, they will carry this view of themselves into middle and high school. For example, if a student is praised, labeled as “gifted,” or deemed intelligent in elementary school, the child will feel secure and confident in themselves. In his case study, John Hattie details the highest factors that determine student achievement and concludes that when children are praised and congratulated for small accomplishments through stickers, gold stars, or words of affirmation, they are more likely to feel motivated and achieve higher grades. On the other hand, when students are not acknowledged for all efforts, they usually feel worthless and incompetent, unable to achieve goals to the degree of their praised classmates. According to Go Guardian, teachers can play a detrimental role in lowering students’ self-esteem through comments. Academic destiny is predetermined by teacher comments because teachers can inspire and uplift or demotivate and demoralize their students. When self-esteem issues emerge during elementary school, carry into middle school, and continue into high school, students often underperform their classmates as they second-guess their abilities; these self-esteem issues are in-part determined by elementary school teachers.
In addition to self-esteem issues, placement tests determine class levels, which have a prominent role in determining a person’s academic success. These leveled classes were created to give students the opportunity to learn at their own pace and choose the course intensity to complement their skill set. While this sounds ideal in theory, people grow academically, and unfortunately, class placements are difficult to reverse in high school--especially when moving from a College Prep (CP) to a higher-level course (Honors or Advanced Placement)—due to preconceived notions of their academic ability. In middle school, for example, counselors and teachers consult elementary school grades and review placement tests; if someone took lower-level classes in their early years, they would most likely continue with this academic trajectory in high school. Anne Wheelock, as part of a Wright Psychology interview, shared that “ability grouping generally depresses student achievement and is harmful to kids…once students are grouped, they generally stay at that level for their school careers.” Further, students who are not skilled test takers are prone to getting placed in courses with standards below their academic potential and skill set. While most schools across the country value placement tests when deciding course selections, some are beginning to realize the detrimental implications of relying on tests and leveled courses during elementary school to determine a person’s overall academic journey. Although Acton-Boxborough High School is not moving to eliminate leveled classes, the school system is planning to combine CP and AE classes, similar to many nearby school districts. By doing this, students would face less academic pressure in elementary school and would get placed in classes at a more mature age and ultimately start their academic careers at a later point. However, even with these changes, academic destiny is still inevitably determined by placement tests that dictate course level and make it difficult for students to switch from a lower to a higher-level class.
To reduce the influence of elementary school education on academic journeys, schools should implement other methods and utilize supplementary information to determine class placement: references from teachers, grades, passions, and interests. By doing this, students would be more likely to get placed in classes that match their skill sets and less likely to switch levels later in the year. Furthermore, schools should recognize students' abilities to evolve and develop over time; students should have leeway when figuring out their course selection to ensure that their academic destinies are not predetermined by placement tests. When students receive negative validation from authority figures—at home or at school—they are less likely to do well on placement tests. If placement tests determine academic destiny, positive validation in elementary school becomes essential for students’ confidence levels and academic ability. To ensure that elementary-aged students receive healthy validation, schools could try to monitor teachers’ comments and possibly provide their staff with resources and tips on how to uplift and inspire kids. Even with these changes, however, academic destiny is determined early on in a person’s life, and it is difficult to counter assumptions and preconceived notions regarding ability. Instead, shifting the focus towards a student’s self esteem will prevent influencing their academic destiny.