Several Years of Small Classes During K-3 Smooth the Road to High School Graduation, UB Study Shows

By Mary Cochrane

Release Date: May 24, 2005 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While the relationship between smaller class size and greater academic achievement has been well-documented, a study by education researchers at the University at Buffalo shows that students who spend several years in smaller-sized classes during the elementary grades -- especially those from lower-income families -- have a greater likelihood of graduating from high school.

The study found that those students who spent four years in small classes during K-3 exhibited an 11.5 percent increase in high-school graduation rates. They also found that of these students, those considered "at risk" -- minority students, students attending inner-city schools or students from low-income homes -- doubled their chances of high-school graduation.

"This principle, small classes in the early grades, is especially important for low-income students," said co-author Jeremy D. Finn, professor in the UB Graduate School of Education. "The best applications, then, would be in schools serving students living in poverty."

The fact that the study, published in the May issue of Journal of Educational Psychology, involved nearly 5,000 students contributes to its reliability, Finn added. The other co-authors were Susan B. Gerber, UB assistant professor of counseling, school and educational psychology, and Jayne Boyd-Zaharia of HEROS, Inc.

"The fact that this is based on a long-term, large-scale, randomized experiment makes these findings especially 'solid.' This methodology, the 'gold standard' in other disciplines, is a rarity in education," Finn said.

The study followed a subset of students from among 12,000 students in 300 Tennessee schools who participated in the state's Project STAR, which began in 1985.

As part of Project STAR, each participating school took students entering kindergarten and assigned them randomly to a small class of 13-17 students, a full-size class of 22-26 students or a full-size class with a full-time teacher's aide. Students were kept in the same class arrangement for up to four years, or through the third grade, with new teachers assigned at random to the class each year and achievement tests administered each spring.

While Project STAR ended once the students reached fourth grade, Finn and his team continued monitoring them through their high school years.

"This research clearly indicates that students need to spend more than one year in a small class for long-term academic benefits. At least three, and preferably four, years of small classes are required to increase high-school graduation rates, as well as to sustain long-term academic achievement," he said.

Finn noted that similar studies of the effects of small class sizes for middle school students in grades 5-9 are "desperately needed." He and his team also currently are investigating the relationship of small elementary classes with advanced course work in high school.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.