Research Shows Benefits of Small Classes

Proponents of smaller class sizes received good news on two fronts recently. In Tennessee, researchers reported in late April that the benefits to students in smaller classes in early elementary grades lasted on into high school. And in Wisconsin, the second-year evaluation of a small-class initiative showed that students in smaller classes scored significantly higher in all areas tested.

The Tennessee report involved a study known as Project Star. The researchers found that even by the end of 12th grade, students who had been in classes of 13 to 17 students in kindergarten through third grade did noticeably better in a variety of ways: they tended to drop out less frequently, to take more challenging classes in high school, and to be more inclined to attend college. The researchers also found that low-income students and African-American students from inner-city schools tended to receive the most benefits.

The study is significant because of its large scope, encompassing 12,000 students who participated in the state-funded experiment from 1985 to 1990. Earlier findings had shown students in the smaller classes outperformed those in larger classes in reading, math, and science.

Research on a similar program in Wisconsin has shown equally positive results. An evaluation of the second year of Wisconsin’s Student Achievement Guarantee in Education (SAGE) program shows that first-grade students in SAGE classrooms scored significantly higher in all areas tested than students in comparison school classrooms.

The SAGE program strives to improve the academic achievement of low-income children by reducing the student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade to 15:1. Participating schools are also required to provide a rigorous curriculum and before- and after-school activities, and to implement professional development and accountability plans.

The latest evaluation showed that after a year in the SAGE program, first-grade African-American students surpassed African-American students in comparison schools, even though they had tested lower at the beginning of the year. Furthermore, the gap between test scores of white and African-American students narrowed in the SAGE schools, while it widened in the comparison schools.

Second-grade students who began SAGE as first-graders also scored higher than those in the comparison group, but their advantage did not appear to have increased significantly. The evaluation addresses some factors that may have influenced the second grade results, including the fact that some schools delayed implementing the program in the 1997-98 school year, and that some students first entered the SAGE program in second grade.