The Predictive Power of Student Behavior

To explore the first question, I create a measure of students’ non-cognitive skills by using the information on their behavior available in the 9th-grade data, including the number of absences and suspensions, grade point average, and on-time progression to 10th grade. I refer to this weighted average as the “behavior index.”

The basic logic of this approach is as follows: in the same way that one infers that a student who scores higher on tests likely has higher cognitive skills than a student who does not, one can infer that a student who acts out, skips class, and fails to hand in homework likely has lower non-cognitive skills than a student who does not. I also create a test-score index that is the average of 9th-grade math and English scores.

I then look at how both test scores and the behavior index are related to various measures of high-school success, using administrative data that follow students’ trajectories over time. The outcomes I consider include graduating high school on time, grade-point average at graduation, taking the CXC exams, and reported intentions to enroll in a four-year college.

Roughly 82 percent of students graduated, 4 percent are recorded as having dropped out, and the rest either migrated  or remained in school beyond their expected graduation year. Because I am interested in how changes in these skill measures predict long-run outcomes, I control for the student’s test scores and behavior in 8th grade. In addition, my analysis adjusts for differences in parental education, gender, and race/ethnicity.

My first set of results shows that a student’s behavior index is a much stronger predictor of future success than her test scores. The extent to which increasing test scores and the behavior index by one standard deviation, equivalent to moving a student’s score from the median to the 85th percentile on each measure, predicts improvements in various outcomes.

A student whose 9th-grade behavior index is at the 85th percentile is a sizable 15.8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school on time than a student with a median behavior index score. I find a weaker relationship with test scores: a student at the 85th percentile is only 1.9 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than a student whose score is at the median. The behavior index is also a better predictor than 9th-grade test scores of high-school GPA and the likelihood that a student takes the CXC exams and plans to attend college.

While these patterns reveal that the behavior index is a good predictor of educational attainment, they are descriptive. They do not show that teachers impact these behavior, and they do not show that teacher impacts on these measures will translate into improved longer-run success.