Cobb-Clark, D. A., Ho, T., & Salamanca, N. (2021). ‘Parental Responses to Children’s Achievement Test Results’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2021-16. Institute for Social Science Research, The University of Queensland.
Deborah A. Cobb-Clark, Tiffany Ho, and Nicolás Salamanca.
Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper 2021-16
Parental investments in their children’s education are particularly consequential in shaping their intellectual, emotional, and social development. The investment strategies that parents adopt depend not only on what they want for their children (i.e., their preferences) and the resources they have available to them (i.e., their constraints), but also on how well they understand their children’s existing capabilities and the best options for extending them. Some parents have incorrect beliefs about their children’s achievement and misallocate their investments as a result. Importantly, misinformation appears to be worse among more disadvantaged families, which might help explain socio-economic disparities in human capital investments. Giving parents objective high-quality information on academic performance is a natural way to close any information gaps; whether this also mitigates the disparity in child investments depends on how parents respond to the information they receive.
We estimate the causal impact of objective information about children’s academic achievement on the investments (i.e., time spent with children, books, tutoring, pocket money, extracurricular activities, and parenting style) that parents make in them. To do this we use variation in the timing of the release of national standardized test scores relative to interview dates in Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) that is as good as random, creating an excellent controlled experiment for exploring the causal effect of this information. The standardized test score reports we analyze give parents objective information about their child’s individual test results in several domains (e.g., literacy, numeracy, writing). Some parents are interviewed before they know their child’s test score (the control group) while others are interviewed afterwards (the treated group).
Our results show that receiving standardized test score reports leads parents to be more modest in their views of their child’s relative achievement, correcting generally overoptimistic beliefs at baseline. Parents also lower their school satisfaction as a result of receiving this information. Moreover, the release of test score reports leads to a large increase in the use of private tutoring and a reduction in the number of extracurricular activities (e.g., community groups, sports, religious activities) that children participate in. We interpret these results as an effort from parents to refocus their children onto education and away from leisure. Finally, we exploit the fact that test score reports naturally lead parents to compare their children’s performance in a second quasi-experiment. Using this, we show that when children score above the national average in their test scores, parents are more optimistic about their child’s school achievement, and children’s time is reallocated towards educational activities and away from leisure. These results reinforce the idea that of very intentional and targeted parental investments in education in response to positive signals regarding children’s academic ability.
The fact that the release of children’s standardized test scores shifts parental investments and perceptions in our context—where parents have every opportunity to be well informed about their children’s achievement—is remarkable and highlights just how hard is for parents to form correct beliefs about their children’s achievement. Our findings are particularly timely in light of the current debate about the value of standardized testing. Some stakeholders argue that tests have become “high stakes” leading to a distortion in schools’ teaching and learning programs; others point to their role in making judgements about school and school system performance. Notwithstanding this debate, Australia is among those countries making school-level test results public as part of a broader attempt to hold schools accountable for the educational outcomes their students achieve. Our results show that parents do act on this information when making their decisions about how best to support their children’s human development.