Smaller class size may not improve math scores

August 09, 1999

Chicago -- In nine countries around the world, larger classes are associated with better math scores among eighth graders. Only in the U.S. do small classes perform slightly better in math, according to a Penn State researcher.

"The perception in the U.S. is that small classes are better," says Dr. Suet-ling Pong, associate professor of education and sociology. "There is some evidence, in previous studies, that small classes for K-3 are beneficial. For eighth-grade math classes, we found that small is marginally better in the U.S., but we do not know why this differs from other countries."

Pong and Dr. Aaron Pallas of Michigan State University looked at the data for eighth graders in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). They looked at 10 countries including Australia, Flemish Belgium, Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, Iceland and the United States to see if small classes were associated with higher math achievement in eighth graders.

"We found some support for smaller eighth-grade math classes in the U.S.," Pong told attendees today (Aug. 9) at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago.

Math students in the United States in classes of 6 to 18 students do better than those in classes of 19 to 29. This finding occurs after adjusting for the average socioeconomic status of the students in the same classroom.

"While this is tentative support for reducing class size to promote higher math achievement, the effect is very small," says Pong. "When we look at other countries we do not find the same results."

In Australia, Flemish Belgium, and France, large classes do significantly better than small ones even after taking socioeconomic status into account. In Canada, Germany, Iceland, Korea and Singapore, class size does not matter. Because data on students' social backgrounds is not available for England or Japan, these countries were not included in the study.

Pong's research was supported by the American Educational Research Association grants program, which receives funds from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education.

"Our international study is at the preliminary stage. More research needs to be done to determine why the U.S. is the only country out of the 10 we examined where small classes do better in math," says Pong.
EDITORS: Dr. Pong is at 814-863-3770 or by email.

Penn State

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