The experiment, known as Project STAR, involved randomly assigning students entering kindergarten to a small class (13-17 students), to a full-size class (22-26 students), or to a full-size class with a full-time teacher aide within each participating school. The class size was maintained throughout the day and all year long. Students were kept in the same class arrangement for up to four years, with a new teacher assigned at random to the class each year.
Results show that for all students combined, four years in a small class in K-3 were associated with an 11.5 percent increase in high school graduation rates. This effect was even greater for low socio-economic students (students who were receiving free lunches). In fact, after four years in a small class, the graduation rate for free-lunch students was as great as or greater than that for non-free lunch students (more than doubling the odds of graduating).
The study also revealed a strong relationship between mathematics and reading achievement in K-3 and graduation from high school.
"Our results contradict arguments that just one year in a small class is enough to reap long-term academic benefits," says Dr. Finn. "Three or four years of small classes are needed to affect graduation rates, and three or four years have been found necessary to sustain long-term achievement gains."
Future research is needed, according to the authors, to more fully understand the processes that connect early school experiences with long-term benefits. "The long-term effects of small classes on dropout rates were not explained entirely by improvements in academic performance, even if the improvements carried through later grades. Other dynamics must have been occurring as well, for example, effects on students' attitudes and motivation, students' pro- or anti-social behavior, or students' learning behavior," add the researchers.
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