NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Children in Single-Parent Families Perform Worse on Achievement Tests than Their Two-Parent Peers

January 28, 2015

The United States has a higher share of single-parent families than do other countries. What does this mean for academic achievement? Ludger Woessman of the University of Munich analyzed achievement differences across 28 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2000, in order to determine whether children in single-parent families performed as well academically as children from two-parent families. 

Among 15-year-old students in the United States, 20.7 percent live in single-parent families, a percentage matched only by Hungary, where 20.8 percent of 15-year-olds live in single-parent families. On average among the 28 countries Woessman analyzed, just 13.7 percent live in single-parent families.

Woessman notes that single-parent homes tend to have fewer resources -- and less time -- to devote to their children, and various studies indicate that children of single parents in the United States face greater emotional distress and have lower educational attainment. What about academic achievement? According to Woessman's study:

  • Children of single-parent families score lower than students in two-parent families, on average scoring 18 points worse.
  • In the United States, the difference is especially pronounced: the average achievement difference in math between children of single- and two-parent families is 26.6 points -- roughly equivalent to one grade level.

Notably, Mexican children did not perform differently based on family structure, and the difference for Portuguese children was not statistically significant. Otherwise, Woessman found that all achievement differences in other countries based on family structure were statistically significant.

Woessman also adjusted the data for students' backgrounds in order to see whether their socioeconomic background, parents' education levels, immigration status or family language could be impacting the numbers. After accounting for these factors, he found that the disparity between single-parent and two-parent children's scores was cut in half. In the United States, the difference dropped from 27 points to 10 points. By far, the largest factor for the achievement gap was socioeconomic background.

Source: Ludger Woessman, "Single-Parent Families and Student Achievement: An International Perspective," Education Next, January 9, 2015.


Browse more articles on Education Issues