School Composition and Context Factors That Moderate and Predict 10th-Grade Science Proficiency

Apr. 10, 2010

Source: Teachers College Record, Volume 112 Number 4, 2010, p. 1096-1136.

Performance in high school science is a critical indicator of science literacy and regional competitiveness. Factors that influence science proficiency have been studied using national databases, but these do not answer all questions about variable relationships at the state level. School context factors and opportunities to learn science may vary geographically across states and interact with demographic composition variables.


The purpose was to examine relationships between 10th-grade science proficiency and school context factors related to school environment, courses, and teachers. The moderating or interaction effects were examined for the school demographic composition variables of free/reduced lunch and minority percentages on variable relationships with science proficiency scores.

Population and Unit of Analysis
Data for this study consisted of all Missouri high schools in 2002 with a 10th-grade class size of at least 25 students (N = 423). Unit of analysis was the single school.

Research Design
This was a secondary data analysis study that used variables collected annually from all schools in Missouri. Multiple regression was used to examine relationships and moderating effects of school demographic composition. Predictor variables were grouped into three categories for school context: school environment, course related, and teacher related.


School context variables of higher dropout and mobility rates signaled greater risk factors, especially when moderated by free/reduced-price lunch percentage (FRL pct) and minority status. When FRL pct and Minority pct were higher, lower science proficiency scores were associated with elevated dropout rates. Similarly, greater mobility was related to lower science scores when school FRL pct was high.

Some school-level variables interacted positively with FRL pct and minority status, which resulted in higher science scores. Schools with more FRL and minority students achieved higher science proficiency scores when they had a greater percentage of courses taught by highly qualified teachers and more teachers were regularly certified. Higher science scores were associated with greater percentages of master’s degree teachers in schools with a larger percentage of minority students.

A surprising finding revealed a geographic influence and demonstrates why testing for interactions can lead to better understanding of the data.


The findings are consistent with the status attainment literature and the theoretical arguments associated with geography and educational attainment in that socioeconomic status and minority status are important predictive factors in Missouri. As an extension of previous research, this study demonstrates that the school composition variables of FRL pct and Minority pct are significantly related to science proficiency in the 10th grade. Not only are they predictive of science proficiency scores, but they also interact with each other and moderate the relationships between school context variables and 10th-grade science scores.

This study suggests that teacher quality in high-poverty majority-minority school settings remains an important policy target for reform and improvement.

Updated: May. 30, 2010