the effects of divorce on the academic achievement of high school seniors

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  • The Effects of Divorceon the Academic Achievement

    of High School Seniors

    Barry D. Ham

    ABSTRACT. The divorce rate in the United States has climbed at an as-tounding rate during the past 80 years. Consequences of this change infamily structure have impacted millions of children in a variety of ways.This study assessed the impact of divorce in relation to students aca-demic achievement. Two hypotheses were introduced reflecting expec-tations suggested by previous studies. High school seniors from a middleclass school in a Rocky Mountain State served as the population for thisstudy.

    The results suggest that family structure impacts both the grade pointaverage and attendance of high school students. Adolescents from intactfamilies outperform those students from other family structures. One ofthe most surprising findings was that these results were most pronouncedfor females. Females were more negatively impacted by family struc-tures due to divorce than were males. [Article copies available for a feefrom The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail ad-dress: Website: 2003 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.]

    Barry D. Ham, PhD, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice inColorado Springs, CO. He also works as a counselor with the Academy School District,and is an adjunct faculty member at Colorado Christian University.

    Address correspondence to: Barry D. Ham, P.O. Box 63241, Colorado Springs, CO80962.

    Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, Vol. 38(3/4) 2003 2003 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

    10.1300J087v38n03_09 167

  • KEYWORDS. Divorce, intact-family, academic-achievement, family-structure, attendance, gender, high school students


    The current status of divorce is relatively new. It was not that longago that divorce was rare and unacceptable in society. In the 1920s, ap-proximately 100 women per thousand were married each year. The di-vorce rate at that time was running about 10 per thousand. However, thepicture changed dramatically over the next 70 years. By 1990, the firstmarriage rate of women had actually dropped to about 80 per thousandeach year, while the divorce rate had increased to 40 per thousand(Shiono & Quinn, 1994). In other words, the number of women gettingmarried for the first time had decreased by 20%; yet, the divorce ratehad increased by 300%.

    Looking back even further, approximately 5% of marriages in theUnited States ended in divorce just after the Civil War. This increasedto 10% by the 1920s (as shown above), to 36% of 1964, and to 50% by1990 (Furstenberg, 1994). Furstenberg refers to this extraordinary in-crease in the divorce rate as being a result of the divorce revolution.From 1865 to 1990, a span of only 125 years, the divorce rate in thiscountry increased by 900%.

    Shiono and Quinn (1994) have called attention to the dramatic way inwhich these numbers have affected children. In 1988, 15% of all chil-dren lived with a divorced or separated parent with an additional 11%living with a stepparent. This 26% translates into 17 million childrenliving in the resulting structures following divorce. More than one mil-lion children per year have experienced a divorcing family since themid-1970s.

    During the early 1960s, nearly 90% of children lived their first 18years in homes with two biological, married parents (Hetherington &Stanley-Hagan, 1999). However, during the past 40 years, that percent-age has diminished at an alarming rate. By 1995, it has been reported,18.9 million children under the age of 18 lived with one parent (Sin-gle-parent kids, 1997). This reflects the fact that 45% of all first mar-riages in the United States result in divorce within 14 years (Lamb,Sternberg, & Thompson, 1997).

    This seemingly unabated rise in the number of children from di-vorced households has generated concern among educators, mentalhealth professionals, researchers, and society as a whole. With schools


  • and teachers being faulted with lower test scores and grades by students,one wonders what role changes in family structure may have played inthese academic measures. If the rising divorce rate does have an impactupon student academic achievement, then parents and educators bothmay need to reexamine their roles in meeting the needs of these stu-dents.

    Divorce affects children and adolescents in a variety of ways. Onearea that is of particular interest to this study is that of academicachievement. Numerous studies have observed that children from di-vorced families are impacted negatively when it comes to school per-formance. Frum (1996) pointed this out when he stated that childrenwho are raised with only one of their biological parents are twice aslikely to drop out of school than are children from two-parent families.He also noted that these children demonstrate poorer school attendanceand are less likely to attend college.

    McManus (1993) emphatically states:

    Compared to an American child, a Japanese child is four timesmore likely to be reared by both parents, according to the U.S.Census Bureau. The stability of Japanese families and the chaos ofAmerican families is a major reason that Japanese students are somuch more successful in school than are American children-and amajor reason for the success of the Japanese economy. (pg. 27-28)

    Jeynes (1997) concludes in his research that there is a parallel be-tween the divorce rate in the U.S. and what has been perceived as the de-cline of education. He clearly states:

    There has been a great deal of public criticism of the public schoolsystem due largely to: (1)declining standardized test scores duringthe 1963-1980 period; (2) consistently poor performances on in-ternational comparison tests; and (3) soaring rates of juvenilecrime in the schools. The tendency has often been for the public toblame the schools for these problems. And certainly, the schoolsdeserve some portion of the blame. But the results of this studycontribute some credence to the notion that the decreasing per-centage of children coming from intact families exerts a down-ward pressure on the average academic achievement of Americanchildren. It is probably far more than coincidence that the U.S. di-vorce rate which had been in a slow decline during the 1948-1962period, rose sharply in 1963 and continued to rise sharply after that

    Barry D. Ham 169

  • during almost exactly the same period as the standardized testscore decline. (pg. 226-227)

    Gunning (1998) conducted a study of the academic accomplishmentsof middle school students, surveying 131 eighth grade science stu-dents, and recording their science grades for the current and four previ-ous years. While she examined family structure, gender of student,gender of custodial parent, and length of time since the divorce in rela-tion to academic performance, the only variable that showed signifi-cance was family structure. She discovered that the students fromdivorced families received significantly lower science grades than stu-dents from intact families.

    Jeynes (1997) found similar results in his work with data from theNational Education Longitudinal Study (NELS). Particular attention, inhis study, was given to the results of the student questionnaire, test re-sults, and school data. The analyses, overall, showed that the further afamily structure was from the intact two-part family, the more nega-tive an impact that the family structure had on academic achieve-ment (pg. 225).

    Using the same NELS data, Pong and Ju (2000), reported that highschool dropout rates were significantly lower for students who residedwith both parents than for adolescents of single parents. Interestingly,they discovered that any disruption to the two-parent family increasedthe odds of dropping out. It didnt matter whether the child was movingfrom an intact family to a mother-only family, a father-only family, astep-family, or a guardian family. The dropout rate was approximatelydouble for any student in a family type other than an intact, two-parentfamily.

    Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY),Wojtkiewicz (1993) took particular interest in the living arrangementsof these individuals from birth to the age of 19. What he discovered wassignificant. Any child who lived in a non-intact family, during any yearof that time, experienced a decreased chance of graduation.

    Data from the NLSY was used in another research project carried outby Sandefur, McLanahan, and Wojtkiewicz (1992). The results of theirstudy also demonstrated that students from divorced homes are lesslikely to graduate than students from intact homes.

    One final study will be mentioned in this section regarding schoolperformance. In discussing school performance, some researchers re-port achievement by examining the scores from standardized achieve-ment tests, while others report school grades. Smith (1995) stated that


  • the method used makes a difference. It was his contention that familystructure and parental involvement would have a greater effect uponschool grades than upon standardized achievement. Grades seemed tobe more influenced by effort, parental availability, and other social fac-tors than standardized scores. He analyzed data from 1,688 seventh andninth graders from 14 public schools in Columbia, South Carolina. Hisresearch results supported his hypothesis. He found that the grades ofchildren from divorced families were negatively impacted much morethan they were for children from stable intact families. However, thedifferences in standardized scores were much smaller. This is an impor-tant difference in accurately measur


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