How Do Small Class Sizes Affect Final Grades?

Whether at the elementary, secondary, or collegiate level, small class sizes affect grades and influence student learning. Class size is a growing concern, especially since over 60 percent of public school districts in America are facing staff reductions. With tight budgets, schools are forced to consolidate some educational programs. Teachers are now held responsible for teaching more students while still making sure each individual pupil’s needs are met. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the national average class size for primary schools is 26.2 and 25.5 for secondary schools. Certain states, such as California, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington, have considerably larger class sizes. Nevada’s primary schools top out at 54.4! Research is increasingly supporting that class size is one of the major factors determining student achievement.

Research on Class Size

One of the most cited studies on class size is the “Student Teacher Achievement Ratio,” or STAR Project, from the late 1980s. Academic researchers in Tennessee conducted a field experiment in which students and teachers were randomly assigned to a class. The regular class had 22 students, whereas the small class had 15. Reducing the class size by seven pupils, or 32 percent, significantly increased student achievement. Researchers concluded that students in the small class were about three months ahead in curriculum than the other class. Another study published by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) found statistically significant improvements in student learning when classes were lowered from 20 to 15 students.

Class Size vs. Student-Teacher Ratio

Student-teacher ratio is a common term thrown around in education, especially in promotions for colleges and universities. Student-teacher ratio is a statistic showing the total number of full-time instructional staff on payroll in comparison to number of students. Therefore, the student-teacher ratio could include reading specialists, special education teachers, physical education teachers, and other specialists. A ratio of 13:1 simply says that there are 13 students for every licensed educator working in the building. Student-teacher ratios are usually lower than the actual number of students per general education classroom. Class size focuses solely on how many pupils are occupying desks in the school’s average classroom.

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Benefits of Small Class Sizes

Small class sizes are clearly linked with higher achievement in students of all ages, but most notably in early grades. Having smaller classes allows quality teachers to better customize their lesson plans to suit unique learning needs. Teachers can devote more time to instruction than managing large groups of students in the classroom. Studies have shown that smaller classes encourage students to engage more and participate in learning activities. Students are less likely to shy away from discussions or get lost in the shuffle. Small class sizes have shown positive correlation with better grades and improved high school graduation rates. Evidence shows the biggest impact in urban schools with minorities and immigrants.

Overall, smaller class sizes can benefit students, classroom teachers, administrators, and entire school districts by boosting student achievement. In recent years, at least 24 states have implemented new legislative policies in an effort to set a maximum class size. Class size reductions come with a high price tag for the government though. It’s been estimated that decreasing class size by just one student could cost the U.S. $12 billion more annually. Since small class sizes affect grades and test scores, it’s an educational investment worth considering.