California's $5.2-billion effort to reduce the size of primary school classes has produced incremental achievement gains among third-graders for the second year in a row, according to a study released Wednesday.
A slightly higher percentage of third-graders in smaller classes exceeded the national median on the Stanford 9 exam last year than did those in larger classes. The gains were enjoyed by students regardless of ethnicity, income level or ability to speak English.
Researchers from Rand Corp. and four other groups also found that improvements largely persisted when students were tested in larger fourth-grade classes.
But the state's effort to reduce classes to 20 students in kindergarten through grade 3 has exacerbated a troubling shortage of credentialed teachers, a problem that weighs most heavily on schools serving minority and low-income students, the researchers found.
At the same time, the popular program has drained teachers away from special education and bilingual education.
State education officials expressed concern over the continuing drop in teacher quality but said they were encouraged by the bump in test scores. The officials called class size reduction, the most expensive education reform in California history, a worthy investment.
"I think there's reason for optimism," said Sue Burr, California's interim secretary for education. "We would obviously like the scores to be higher and to rise at a faster rate. But I think any measure of improvement is a sign to celebrate."
The report closely follows another study by the Heritage Foundation, which found no evidence of gains for students in smaller classes nationwide. That report analyzed test scores of fourth-graders and eighth-graders on a 1998 reading exam administered in 39 states, including California.
"Children in small classes [20 students or fewer] do no better than children in large classes in reading achievement," said Kirk Johnson, a policy analyst at the Heritage Center for Data Analysis.
Johnson said class sizes nationwide have fallen steadily over the last 30 years--from an average of 22 students to 17--while academic achievement on national reading tests has remained relatively constant.
"The jury is certainly still out on this topic," he said.
Researchers examining California's class size reforms said the two reports cannot be compared because they involve different tests and grade levels.
California's study was conducted by Rand, the American Institutes for Research and three other research organizations. It is the second of four reports planned by the consortium on the state's class size reform program.
The analysts found that 37% of California third-graders who attended smaller classes scored above the national median in reading on the Stanford 9 exam in 1999, while 36% in larger classes surpassed that mark.
Similarly, 42% of third-graders in smaller classes exceeded the national median in language skills, while 39% in larger classes did.
The greatest difference was in math: 46% of the students in smaller classes exceeded the national median, compared with 42% in larger classes.
The median is defined as the midpoint of test scores, with half the test takers above and half below.
The gains mirrored 1998 results for third-graders in the same subjects.
The researchers said it is difficult to attribute the improvements strictly to smaller classes because California has instituted numerous other reforms aimed at boosting achievement.
Nonetheless they said class size is an important factor.
"I think this is a very positive finding," said Brian Stecher, a senior social scientist at Rand and a principal author of the study. "It's small, but it's clearly in the right direction."
Stecher pointed out that California students still rated quite low in reading and math when compared with others who took the Stanford 9 exam. Even after factoring in the gains of smaller classes, less than half of the state's third-graders scored above the national median in reading and math in 1999.
Class size reduction was introduced in California four years ago in response to the state's fourth-graders finishing dead last on national reading tests. Lawmakers seized on the idea, which had shown promise in other states, most notably Tennessee.
The reform arrived virtually overnight. School districts were given only weeks to prepare before it kicked in, triggering unforeseen problems.
Schools found themselves scrambling to hire thousands of teachers--many with no experience--to staff their new smaller classrooms. And the additional classes created a severe space crunch that hit hardest in crowded urban schools serving the neediest children. As a result, administrators began converting music rooms, libraries, auditorium stages and other available areas into classrooms.
Wednesday's report did not address the space crunch, but it did provide an update on teachers.