Academic journal article School Psychology Review

An Exploration of the Relationship between Ethnicity, Attention Problems, and Academic Achievement

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

An Exploration of the Relationship between Ethnicity, Attention Problems, and Academic Achievement

Article excerpt

Abstract. There has been longstanding concern about achievement differences across ethnic groups. Inattention is a significant factor associated with underachievement, and higher ratings of inattention have been found for some minority groups. The present study examined the relationship between inattention and achievement across Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic first graders. Thirty-three teachers rated over 600 students on their academic achievement, inattentive classroom behavior, oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, and anxiety. Only attention problems, and not other behavior problems, were independently associated with diminished academic achievement. Of particular interest is that a substantial portion of the achievement gap between African American and Caucasian students was related to higher rates of attention difficulties among the former, even though attention problems and achievement were more strongly associated among Caucasians. The implications of these findings for efforts to promote student achievement, and to reduce the achievement gap between African American and Caucasian students, are discussed.


Children from different ethnic backgrounds make up a significant and increasing percentage of the American public school population, accounting for almost 40% of the national enrollment in the fall of 2000 (National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2002). For the past 30 years, significantly fewer minority students have been considered proficient in reading, and minority students score lower on standardized tests compared to Caucasian students (NCES, 2002). Educators face the challenge of finding effective teaching strategies so that all students can meet predetermined achievement standards; the pressure of this challenge has increased recently with President Bush's enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB, 2001).

An unexplored factor that may contribute to the "achievement gap" between African American and Caucasian students is ethnic differences in attention problems. There are several reasons to hypothesize that this may be the case. First, attending to classroom instruction is critically important for academic success, particularly in the area of reading (McGee & Share, 1988; Rowe & Rowe, 1992; Warner-Rogers, Taylor, Taylor, & Sandberg, 2000). Second, data from several longitudinal studies suggest that attention problems play a causal role in the development of academic difficulties (Fergusson & Horwood, 1990; Merrell & Tymms, 2001; Rabiner, Coie, & CPPRG, 2000; Rabiner, Malone, & CPPRG, 2004). Third, although other emotional and behavioral problems (e.g., hyperactivity and conduct problems) are also associated with academic difficulty, there is evidence that these behaviors are not related to student achievement after their association with attention problems is taken into account (Barriga et al., 2002; McGee, Prior, Williams, Smart, & Sanson, 2002; Rabiner et al., 2000, 2004; Wolraich et al., 2003).

In addition to the studies reviewed above, data collected on over 4,000 5-18-year-old children from 31 school districts across the United States indicated that teacher ratings of inattentive classroom behavior are significantly higher for African American students than for Caucasian or Hispanic students (DuPaul et al., 1997). Similar findings have been reported by other researchers (Epstein, March, Conners, & Jackson, 1998). A reasonable hypothesis to emerge from this combination of results (i.e., attention problems are linked to achievement difficulties, and higher rates of attention problems are reported for African Americans) is that attention problems may contribute to achievement differences between African American and Caucasian students. This possibility, which would have important implications for efforts to reduce the achievement gap, has not been previously examined.

In addition to a lack of prior research on whether the achievement gap is associated with ethnic differences in attention problems, research on whether ethnicity moderates the association between attention problems, other behavior problems, and academic achievement is limited. …

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