Beyond School Records: The Value of Cognitive and Affective Engagement in Predicting Dropout and On-Time Graduation

Added November 1, 2017

Growing attention toward on-time graduation and college/career readiness in recent years has resulted in increased efforts to identify and intervene as soon as possible with students who are falling off track. To identify students who need intervention and monitoring, counselors and other school staff commonly use early warning indicators. These indicators are typically based on school record data, such as attendance, behavior records, and course performance. These are highly useful predictors of graduation-related outcomes, in large part, because they tell us something about a student’s level of engagement or disengagement with school. However, these school record data do not describe aspects of student engagement that involve thoughts and feelings. These internal aspects of student engagement are commonly referred to as cognitive engagement (thoughts) and affective engagement (feelings), while data on attendance, discipline, and course performance are often described as behavioral engagement. There is strong agreement among engagement researchers that the most complete picture of a student’s level of engagement in school includes all three of these engagement types. Using a survey of cognitive and affective engagement along with behavioral indicators of engagement may better indicate how invested students are in their education—information that could help school counselors to better understand and more effectively intervene when students are falling off the path to graduation.

On the other hand, data that do not inform screening or intervention practices are of little use to educators and no benefit to students themselves, especially if it requires additional resources to gather the data. Administering a survey to students about their cognitive and affective engagement in school is more costly than gathering already existing behavioral engagement data from school records. Further, while attendance, behavior, and course performance are different measures of engagement than thoughts and feelings, it is possible that these data will provide all the information needed to identify at-risk students. If this were the case, it would mean that measures of cognitive and affective engagement lack incremental validity. When something has incremental validity it is able to predict an outcome beyond data that is already available.

The purpose of this study was to explore this idea for cognitive and affective engagement (as measured by the Student Engagement Instrument)—specifically, whether there is additional predictive value of cognitive/affective engagement beyond the data that are commonly already available in school databases. To do this, we followed a cohort of students, who completed a survey of cognitive/affective engagement as 9th graders, to one year beyond their expected high school graduation. We found that two factors of cognitive/affective engagement that we measured—(1) Future Goals and Aspirations and (2) Family Support for Learning—added to the prediction of long-term outcomes after accounting for data commonly available to school personnel (e.g., free/reduced price lunch eligibility, special education status, academic achievement, attendance, and suspensions), providing evidence of the potential value in surveying students about their engagement with school. These two engagement factors measured by the survey where able to help identify which students were falling off the graduation path, even when controlling for these other powerful predictors of the outcome. These findings are highly relevant to counselors and other school personnel involved screening and intervention efforts associated with early warning systems and tiered models of service delivery, such as Response to Intervention, Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS), or Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.

Matthew D. Lovelace is director of research for the Office of Research and Evaluation for Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, GA, Amy L. Reschly, Ph.D., is a professor with the University of Georgia, and James J. Appleton is executive director of the Office of Research and Evaluation for Gwinnett County Public Schools.


Matthew D. Lovelace, Amy L. Reschly, Ph.D., James Appleton