Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Negative Effects of School-Average Achievement on Academic Self-Concept: A Comparison of the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect across Australian States and Territories

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Negative Effects of School-Average Achievement on Academic Self-Concept: A Comparison of the Big-Fish-Little-Pond Effect across Australian States and Territories

Article excerpt

Attending academically selective schools is intended to have positive effects, but a growing body of theoretical and empirical research demonstrates that the effects are negative for academic self-concept. The big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE), based on social comparison theory, posits that equally able students will have lower academic self-concepts in academically selective schools than in nonselective schools. Here we test the validity of these predictions for representative samples of 15-year-olds from eight Australian states and territories by using multilevel modelling. Consistent with the BFLPE, the effects of individual student achievement were positive but the effects of school-average achievement were negative. Although there were small differences between states/territories in academic achievement, there were no significant differences between states/territories in the negative effects of school-average ability.

Keywords

ability grouping

academic achievement

school effectiveness

selective admission

self concept

social theories

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The importance of high self-concept as a desirable outcome variable is evident in diverse settings, including education, child development, mental and physical health, social services, organisations, industry, and sport (Branden, 1994). For example, educational policy statements throughout the world list self-concept enhancement as a central goal of education and an important vehicle for dealing with social inequities experienced by disadvantaged groups. This study evaluates the generalisability of theoretical predictions about the effects of school-average achievement based on the big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE), by using large representative samples of 15-year-olds from eight Australian states/territories.

Frame of reference effects in the formation of academic self-concept: The BFLPE

Self-concept cannot be adequately understood if the role of frames of reference is ignored. The same objective characteristics and accomplishments can lead to disparate self-concepts, depending on the frame of reference or standards of comparison that individuals use to evaluate themselves. In an educational context, Marsh (1984; Marsh & Parker, 1984) proposed a frame of reference model called the big-fish-little-pond effect (BFLPE) to encapsulate frame of reference effects posited in social comparison theory. In the BFLPE, academic self-concept is influenced substantially by the ability levels of other students in the immediate context, in addition to one's own ability and academic accomplishments.

The historical and theoretical background for this research program (see Marsh, 1974, 1984, 1991, 1993; Marsh & Parker, 1984) derives from research in psychophysical judgement (e.g. Helson, 1964; Marsh, 1974; Parducci, 1995), social judgement (e.g. Morse & Gergen, 1970; Sherif & Sherif, 1969; Upshaw, 1969), sociology (Alwin & Otto, 1977; Hyman, 1942; Meyer, 1970), social comparison theory (e.g. Festinger, 1954; Suls, 1977), and the theory of relative deprivation (Davis, 1966; Stouffer, Suchman, DeVinney, Star, & Williams, 1949). Marsh (1984) first proposed the theoretical model underlying the BFLPE, where he hypothesised that students compare their own academic ability with the academic abilities of their peers and use this social comparison impression as one basis for forming their own academic self-concept. A negative BFLPE (a contrast effect) occurs where equally able students have lower academic self-concepts when they compare themselves with more able students, and higher academic self-concepts when they compare themselves with less able students. For example, if average ability students attend a school where the average ability level of other students is high (hereafter referred to as a 'high-ability school') so that their academic abilities are below the average of other students in the school, it is predicted that this educational context will foster social comparison processes that will lead to academic self-concepts that are lower than if the same students attended an average-ability school. …

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