Education Research

Executive Function Deficits Determine Student Achievement

A new report finds the achievement gap tends to widen with students having academic difficulties in math and science starting in kindergarten.

Difficulties in math and science learning in the early grades can have lasting consequences for students who have impairments in executive functions, according to a new report from Penn State researchers published in the Early Childhood Quarterly journal. The research looks back at executive functions related to working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control to determine when problems begin in early STEM education.

The study analyzes data from 11,010 students who participated in the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics Early Childhood Education Study, which measures childhood development, school readiness and early childhood experiences. The report data comes from students who started kindergarten in the 2010-2011 school year through the spring of third grade.

"This is the first publicly available dataset that includes measures of executive functions for individual children based on microlevel data," said Paul L. Morgan, Penn State professor of education and demography and lead author of the study. "The assessments are administrated through individual assessors who administer one-on-one measures of student achievement in reading, mathematics and science.  The measures are carefully designed to allow researchers to examine growth across time."

The study compares are compares working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control deficits to different STEM coursework starting in kindergarten.  Morgan said the strongest correlation in his dataset comes between math and working memory.  Study results also show that that kindergarten children with working memory deficits were more than twice as likely to display difficulties with science coursework.

In terms of gender, male students were more likely than females to experience repeated difficulties in reading, but less likely to experience repeated difficulties in math or science. Morgan said the study is designed to determine which students need extra help when it comes to STEM education.

"These students are unlikely to be disposed to STEM coursework and careers," Morgan said. "Identifying these kinds early in their school careers has the potential for helping inequity in the STEM pipeline."

The research is supported by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation's EHR Core Research program that funds fundamental STEM education research.  Morgan's study is the first report come out of the grant and future research will be centered on academic achievement and student behaviors.

The full study is available for purchase in the Early Childhood Quarterly journal.

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for Campus Technology, THE Journal and STEAM Universe covering education policy and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

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