How Some Disadvantaged Students Beat the Odds and Succeed in School

Everyone loves underdogs, especially when they come out on top. Educational researchers are no different. For years, they’ve studied students who are underdogs— those with the limited educational resources and challenging home circumstances typically associated with underachievement. But, more recently, underdogs who beat the odds and succeed in school despite such disadvantages have gotten the spotlight. Recent research using data on eighth-graders from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) found that the number one factor driving success among the students studied is educational aspiration. In order words, those students who believe they will go on to a master’s degree and beyond are, in fact, more likely to succeed.

Understanding the factors that influence student success can help educators support other disadvantaged learners, improving their chances as well as the equity of the education system overall.

Students who beat the odds—or who are academically resilient—have achieved at least an intermediate score on the international mathematics assessment despite lacking key benefits (a decent number of books at home, a parental history of higher education, and particular study aids). Depending on the country, academically resilient students represent 4 to 55 percent of the over 46,000 disadvantaged students in the 28 countries included in the study.

In 20 countries—including the United States—the odds of being academically resilient were at least 78 percent higher for disadvantaged students who aspired to go to graduate school than for those who did not think they would complete college. The odds for disadvantaged students in Chinese Taipei and Turkey were especially high; there, students with higher educational aspirations were 7-8 times more likely to be academically resilient.

Other student beliefs and experiences factor into resiliency, though in fewer countries and to a lesser degree. For example, in six countries (Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and Turkey) disadvantaged students who valued mathematics were 56 percent more likely to be academically resilient than those who did not. In Ghana, Jordan, Oman, Romania, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, the odds of being academically resilient were at least 38 percent higher for disadvantaged students who were almost never bullied than for those who were bullied every week.

In some countries, school conditions also appeared to play a role in academic resiliency, though seldom to the extent of student beliefs and experiences. In these cases, the odds of academic resilience for disadvantaged students were raised when they perceived that their teachers thought they could handle difficult material (9 countries); when one quarter or less of the students who attended school were economically disadvantaged (5 countries); and when schools placed a high or very high emphasis on academic success (4 countries).

In the United States, the only factor that made a significant difference for the 42 percent of disadvantaged students who are academically resilient was educational aspiration. The odds of academic resilience were over 2.5 times higher for disadvantaged U.S. students who aspire to graduate school than for those not expecting to complete college. Overall, 8 percent of the tested population in the United States was considered disadvantaged.

These results add to the growing body of knowledge on academic resiliency. They confirm that what we know about individual students in general—their educational aspirations correlate with achievement— also holds true for disadvantaged students as a group. Possible remedies include policies targeting disadvantaged students in efforts to improve both accessibility to higher education and student perceptions about accessibility.

Maria Stephens is a senior researcher at AIR.