Do Smaller Class Sizes Impact Student Test Scores?


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Is reducing class size worthwhile? Photo by Alvimann

California began an initiative in 1996 to reduce class sizes in Kindergarten through third grade to no more than twenty students per teacher.

This class size reduction program was designed to improve reading and mathematics education, and is similar to an initiative in Florida that limited the number of students in the Pre-K through third grade classrooms to 18 per teacher.

Do Reduced Class Sizes Help?

The California class size reduction program came about after Project STAR, a four year study done in Tennessee schools on the student-teacher achievement ratio, which showed that smaller classes indeed demonstrated a significant improvement in early learning and cognitive studies, especially in minority students.

After the initial four years of the class size reduction program in California, in the capstone report entitled, “What we have learned about class size reduction” published by the California Department of Education in 2002, G.W. Bohrnstedt, & B.M Stecher notes that the achievement rates related to the reduced class sizes were “inconclusive.”

While achievement gains were made in the K-3 grades in California, Bohrnstedt and Stecher were unable to conclusively link these gains to the reduced class sizes. Likewise, they found that while parents liked the smaller class sizes, the program took funding away from other areas and was connected to an increase in the rate of less-qualified teachers due to the dramatic increase in the need for K-3 teachers. This signifies the need for any class size reduction program to focus not only on the number of students, but also on the qualifications of the teachers hired to fill the new positions.

Are Reduced Class Sizes Worth the Money?

Student-teacher-achievement ratio more complex than it seems. Photo by Alvimann

In a study entitled “the Costs and Benefits of Smaller Classes in Wisconsin, a further evaluation of the SAGE program,” published in the Wisconsin Policy Research Report in September, 2000, Thomas Hruz concludes that “the funds expended to meet these class size reductions may be much more efficiently used for other programs that help the same students aided by smaller classes.” The idea here is that while smaller class sizes are indeed popular in argument, the cost-effectiveness of smaller class sizes may not produce the same level of impact as the same monies spent on other education reform programs.

Funding for reducing class sizes can be exorbitant, especially in more densely populated areas, and introduce the added difficulty of finding enough well-qualified teachers to fill the classrooms. Likewise, some schools simply do not have the physical classroom space to reduce class sizes as reductions will result in the creation of additional classes. So the question here becomes, when money is limited, are smaller class sizes the best use of that money or are there other more impactful programs that would benefit the students more?

Student Performance: More Than Just Class Size

In the end, the argument regarding reduced class sizes is a complex one. While it may seem to be more intuitive to conclude that students learn more effectively with smaller the class sizes, research and cost-effectiveness seem to be less conclusive in that regard. Improving student achievement may require a more comprehensive approach rather than the linear approach of simply reducing class sizes.


Mosteller, Frederick, PhD. The Tennessee Study of Class Size in Early School Grades(1995). The Future of Children. V. 5 No. 2, Summer/Fall. Accessed December 5, 2012.

Bohrnstedt, G., & Stecher, B. What we have learned about class size reduction. (2002). California Department of Education. Accessed December 5, 2012.

Hruz, T. The Costs and Benefits of Smaller Classes in Wisconsin, a Further Evaluation of the SAGE Program(2000). Wisconsin Policy Research Report. Accessed December 5, 2012.

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