Executive functions and academic achievement in children and adolescents across socioeconomic and historical contexts

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2023-08

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Executive functions (EFs) are highly heritable higher-order cognitive processes that govern goal-directed thoughts and behaviors and enable individuals to self-regulate. EFs are strongly related to academic achievement during childhood and adolescence. Equally, the quality of students’ social environments, including schools, is tied to student achievement. This dissertation aimed to answer two main questions: (1) Under typical circumstances, to what extent are students’ EFs tied to their performance on high-stakes, state-mandated academic tests across different socioeconomic contexts; and (2) To what extent did EF abilities and academic skills change over time during the coronavirus pandemic, an atypical period of prolonged disruption to formal schooling and related social and learning environments? In Study 1, using both phenotypic and genetic modeling approaches, we found that performance on state-mandated tests of math and reading was moderately heritable and closely linked with EF skills and processing speed, across a variety of environmental contexts. Moreover, EF and processing speed were more strongly related to high-stakes math and reading achievement than socioeconomic con-texts and, controlling for general EF, associations between high-stakes test performance and socioeconomic contexts were attenuated. In Study 2, comparing performance following pandemic-related disruption (peri-COVID) to longitudinal change during a pre-pandemic period (pre-COVID), we observed mean-level decline in cognitive (EF and processing speed) and academic (math and reading) task performance and increased individual variability in math and reading skills. While the rank-order stability of math decreased in the peri-COVID group, there was no significant reordering of child and adolescent performance over time across reading and cognitive tasks in either group. Similarly, the magnitude of association between baseline socio-economic status and change in performance on cognitive and academic tasks did not significantly differ between the pre-COVID and peri-COVID groups. The implications of these findings are discussed in the context of genetically-influenced differences, potential targets for instructional intervention, the role of EF in driving mechanisms of change, and utility of individual, relative, and population-level metrics of learning and development in childhood and adolescence. These studies contribute to the growing body of research that informs education policy and intervention related to individual differences in learning and achievement.

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