School & District Management

Wis. Researchers Question Findings On Class Sizes

By Debra Viadero — October 18, 2000 2 min read
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The national debate over the wisdom of shrinking class sizes is erupting in microcosm in Wisconsin.

In a report posted on its Web site last month, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute takes issue with conclusions from a recent evaluation of a state program to provide poor children with smaller classes.

For More Information

Read “The Costs and Benefits of Smaller Classes in Wisconsin: A Further Evaluation of the SAGE Program.” (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee conducted an original, state-mandated evaluation of the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education, or SAGE, program, which cost $58 million this year.

After following the performance of nearly 10,000 students for three years, the researchers concluded that 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders in classes of no more than 15 pupils scored better on standardized reading and mathematics tests than their counterparts in bigger classes did. (“Wisconsin Study Finds Benefits in Classes of 15 or Fewer Students,” April 12, 2000.)

But the policy- research institute, a nonpartisan group financed by the conservative Bradley Foundation, suggests much of that gain came in 1st grade. In 2nd and 3rd grades, the students in smaller classes were simply maintaining the academic edge they’d already achieved, contends Thomas Hruz, who analyzed the program data for the Milwaukee-based institute.

“They’re not doing any worse. They’re just not doing any better,” Mr. Hruz said.

The Mobility Factor

Mr. Hruz recommends targeting money for reducing class sizes to classrooms where it would do the most good.

But Alex Molnar, one of three principal investigators for the state study, said it’s impossible to tell from the existing data whether Mr. Hruz has a point about the program’s second- and third-year gains. The reason is that many students were moving in and out of the 30 program schools over the course of the study, Mr. Molnar said.

“You would first have to sort out how long students have been in the SAGE program, and how long their peers had been in the program,” he said. “If the question is, do students continue to move ahead in 2nd and 3rd grade, the answer is we don’t know that yet. It’s not ‘No, they don’t.’”

The same criticism dogged a well-known experiment begun in Tennessee in 1985 that also found benefits to smaller class sizes. When researchers from that project went back and reanalyzed their data, however, they concluded that the benefits were indeed cumulative as long as students remained in small classes.

But researchers may never know whether that also turns out to be the case in Wisconsin. The evaluation’s legislative mandate runs out this year, although the program itself will continue.

Interesting Ideas? Send suggestions for possible Research section stories to Debra Viadero at Education Week, 6935 Arlington Road, Suite 100, Bethesda, MD, 20814; e-mail: Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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