Tenn. Class-Size Study Finds Long-Term Benefits

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Students continue to reap the benefits of smaller primary-grade classes all the way through high school, the latest findings from an influential Tennessee study suggest.

The data show that even by the end of 12th grade, years after returning to larger classes, students who were in small classes early in their school careers tended to drop out less frequently, to take more challenging courses, and to be more inclined toward college than were their counterparts from larger classes.

"In essence, what we find is that teachers can do more and can do it better because of the number of youngsters," said Charles M. Achilles, a professor of educational leadership at Eastern Michigan University.

Mr. Achilles was among the original team of researchers that has been tracking nearly 12,000 Tennessee students who took part in a $12 million statewide experiment from 1985 to 1990. The effort, known as Project STAR, for Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio, is widely recognized as the largest, longest-lasting study to date on the effects of smaller classes.

The students in the project were randomly assigned to classes ranging in size from 13 to 25 students in grades K-3. Early findings showed that students in the smaller classes--which ranged from 13 to 17 students--outperformed their peers on reading and mathematics tests.

Later on, when the students returned to regular classes, they maintained their academic edge, staying from six to 13 months ahead of their peers from larger classes during grades 4, 6, and 8 in math, reading, and science.

The researchers also found that poor students from inner-city schools tended to gain the most from smaller classes.

Timely Findings

In presenting their findings last week at a news conference here, the STAR researchers were joined by Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton University professor of economics and public affairs. Using data from the ACT and SAT college-entrance exams, Mr. Krueger found that Tennessee students from smaller classes were more likely to have taken both of those tests than their peers from regular classes.

The differences were especially notable among black students, Mr. Krueger said. Forty percent of African-Americans from smaller classes opted to take a college-entrance exam, compared with 31 percent of their counterparts from larger classes.

The researchers drew on data from high school and state records. Former STAR pupils, they found, were slightly more likely than peers to: complete honors English and advanced mathematics courses, graduate on time, receive an honors diploma, and graduate in the top 10 percent of their classes.

Though based on 11,000 student records, the findings were preliminary, they cautioned.

The researchers hurried to release the data last week to capitalize on debates in Congress and in the states over whether paring down classes is worth the cost.

Cost vs. Benefits

Twenty states have taken steps to reduce the numbers of students in their primary-grade classes, and Congress last fall appropriated $1.2 billion to hire 30,000 additional teachers for one year to help districts further those efforts.

But federal lawmakers are now weighing whether to heed President Clinton's request for more funds for the program.

One sticking point in those discussions is whether class-size-reduction initiatives are worth the cost--and whether other reform measures, such as improving teacher quality, might be more cost-effective.

"If I'm a school administrator, I don't know how to get teacher quality," Mr. Achilles responded. "I do know for sure how to get a small class. While we stand around messing with teacher quality, we're going to lose a generation of kids."

Vol. 18, Issue 34, Page 5

Published in Print: May 5, 1999, as Tenn. Class-Size Study Finds Long-Term Benefits
Related Stories
Web Resources
  • Read "The Tennessee Study of Class Size in the Early School Grades," by Frederick Mosteller, for insight on how class size affects learning, Summer/Fall 1995, The Future of Children: Critical Issues for Children and Youths.
  • In "The Evidence on Class Size," Feb. 16, 1998, a University of Rochester economist concludes that research has yet to validate any connection between class size and higher academic achievement. One of his conclusions: "Project STAR in Tennessee does NOT support overall reductions in class size except perhaps at kindergarten."
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