May 30, 2000 | News Releases on Education
WASHINGTON, May 30, 2000-A new study confirms what educators have long suspected: that peer pressure plays a key role in academic success. But, the study found, the influence of peer pressure on academic performance seems to peak in the fourth grade, not in early adolescence, as is commonly believed.
According to data compiled from the 1998 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) reading exam, fourth graders are far more likely than eighth graders to say their friends "make fun of people who try to do well in school," writes policy analyst Kirk Johnson of The Heritage Foundation's Center for Data Analysis.
Only the background of a student's family-for example, whether both parents have a college education-exerts a similarly strong influence, Johnson found. Other factors, such as race, gender and family income, have a less pronounced effect on educational success.
The NAEP data show that the reading score of a typical fourth grader drops some 19 points, or about 8.5 percent, if his or her peers belittle academic achievement. But the scores for eighth graders in the same situation drop by only about 2.7 percent, at a time when conventional wisdom says peer pressure should be at its height.
Why the disparity? Johnson suggests two reasons. For one, older students often have learned how to mask their academic achievements from friends who deride educational success. Even as peer pressure rises, these students become better at evading it. And the peer effect in older grades tends to focus more on social activities, such as cigarette and alcohol use, than on what happens in the classroom, he says.
Johnson also found that both fourth- and eighth-grade girls score higher than boys on the NAEP reading exam, bolstering recent studies that show girls have certain scholastic advantages over boys. "Despite the popular idea that schools shortchange girls, the results here do not support this notion," he writes.
The Department of Education's NAEP exam in core subjects is given every two years to fourth, eighth and 12th grade students nationwide. In one year, the students are tested in math (as they were in 1996), while the next exam tests reading. Johnson modeled the NAEP data on six factors: the peer effect, race and ethnicity, parents' education, the number of reading materials in the home, participation in the free or reduced-price lunch program, and gender.