Performance Beyond Expectations: Academic Resilience in South Africa

Stellenbosch Working Paper Series No. WP19/2019

Publication date: December 2019


Socio-economic status and educational outcomes are strongly linked across countries and education systems. However, a growing body of research documents the existence of students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds who manage to achieve exceptional academic results. The present study, located in the South African context, uses data from the Progress In Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2016 and the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2015 to explore the factors at the individual and institutional level that are associated with exceptional academic performance in the face of socio-economic disadvantage The first research objective is to identify academically resilient students in the PIRLS 2016 and TIMSS 2015 datasets. I consider how these students are distributed across schools of differing quality, and how they perform relative to the median student in their school. My second research objective explores the ways in which these students differ systematically from their lower-achieving peers. The analytical strategy employed aims to identify factors at the level of the individual and the school that are associated with unusually high results in the absence of crucial inputs such as an affluent home background. Contributing to a growing body of literature that finds associations between student attitudes and academic achievement using large-scale assessment data, I find that the probability of exceptional reading performance in Grade 4 and mathematics performance in Grade 9 in South Africa is also strongly related to these variables. Like a number of existing studies, I find that the constructs aimed at capturing self-confidence, in particular, are strongly associated with the probability of academic resilience in both PIRLS and TIMSS.

JEL Classification:

I20, I21, I24, I29


Resilience, student attitudes, literacy, mathematics, challenging contexts