The influence of class size upon numeracy and literacy performance

Date05 September 2016
Published date05 September 2016
AuthorKevin Watson,Boris Handal,Marguerite Maher
Subject MatterEducation,Curriculum, instruction & assessment,Educational evaluation/assessment
The inuence of class
size upon numeracy and
literacy performance
Kevin Watson, Boris Handal and Marguerite Maher
School of Education, The University of Notre Dame Australia,
Sydney, Australia
Purpose – The purpose of this paper was to investigate the inuences of calendar year, year level,
gender and language background other than English (LBOTE) on student achievement in literacy and
numeracy relative to class size.
Design/methodology/approach – Data for this study were collected over ve years (2008-2012) as
test results from the Australian National Assessment Plan in Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in
Years 3 and 5 from over 100 Sydney primary schools.
Findings – It was found that the most important factors inuencing academic performance in literacy
and numeracy were, in descending order: gender, LBOTE, the calendar year in which the test was
conducted, followed by class size. All variables were signicantly associated with NAPLAN
performance, but effect size estimates for class size were close to zero.
Originality/value – The results of this study support other studies suggesting that factors other than
class size are more important in inuencing academic performance.
Keywords Gender, Ethnicity, Literacy, Class size, Numeracy, Student background
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
A primary concern of Australian parents is whether their child’s school does everything
possible to enable them to achieve their best possible academic results. Test results from
the National Assessment Plan – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), published annually
by the Australian Government, have been accepted by parents as a tool for assessing
which Australian schools are performing best. When NAPLAN results are lower than
the average, parents seek explanations.
The Australian teaching profession regards it as “common-sense” that class size has
an effect on academic performance. Parents have been less likely to emphasise class size
as the most important factor in academic performance, but it is one of a number of
factors they look at when trying to interpret academic performance at their child’s
school. As the primary metric available to parents for school level data is NAPLAN, this
study assesses the effect of class size and other variables on NAPLAN performance.
The authors would like to thank Dr Edward Waters from The University of Notre Dame Australia
for his generous assistance in the statistical and methodological analysis. Also, this research
would not have been possible without the interest and nancial support of the Sydney Catholic
Education Ofce.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Inuence of
class size
Received 29 July 2014
Revised 18 September 2015
12 May 2016
Accepted 8 July 2016
QualityAssurance in Education
Vol.24 No. 4, 2016
©Emerald Group Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/QAE-07-2014-0039
2. Literature review
The effect of class size on academic performance has been extensively debated in the
education literature, with key papers supporting the hypothesis that class size reduction
has either a noticeably positive or insignicant effect on academic performance (Finn
and Achilles, 1999;Konstantopoulos and Chung, 2009;Mosteller, 1995). However, the
literature about class size must be read with caution. First, there is a “common sense”
view in the community about a positive relationship between lower class size and
academic performance (Watson et al., 2013). In part, this view has arisen because the
education profession holds the view that research ndings that say the effect of class
size on student performance is limited or non-existent are counter-intuitive and thus
suspect (Watson et al., 2013). Second, while many papers nd positive class size effects,
lowering class sizes has not led to major improvements in student learning in the general
population in the long term (Hattie, 2005).
2.1 The class size effect
In Australia, the hypothesis that smaller class size leads to better academic performance
has been popularly embraced by the education union movement as being in accordance
with “common-sense” (Watson et al., 2013). Surveys by education unions of their
membership have found the majority of teachers support class size reduction (Parker,
2008). Materials distributed by education unions for two decades have aimed to enlist
the support of parents in campaigning for reduced class sizes (Bluett and Henderson,
2012). Teachers’ association across the English speaking world advocate similar views
as smaller class sizes seem to reduce administration tasks such as the amount of
marking and reporting as well as facilitating classroom management (Biddle and
Berliner, 2007). There is a perception that the general public has come to embrace the
“common-sense” preference for smaller class sizes as a result of those campaigns.
However, the real situation may be more complex. A large British study found that while
parents did think smaller class sizes were better, 60 per cent did not rate class size as an
important factor in choosing a school for their child (Bennett, 1996). This suggests the
general public have only partially embraced the view that class size is one of the most
important inuences on academic performance. Similarly, studies of perceptions of class
size reduction programs (CSRP) in Canada showed that teachers perceive academic
benets in class size reduction, mirroring the views reected by the Australian
Education Union, but most parents perceived that the academic performance of their
child was no better after the size of their class was decreased (Canadian Education
Association, 2010). Therefore, parents may be willing to accept larger class sizes,
provided they are reassured that class size is only one driver of academic performance
and not as signicant as other factors.
Historically, most of the early studies on class size (1970s to 1990s) were large-scale
projects using quantitative methods such as the Student–Teacher Achievement Ratio
Project, the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education Project and the California
CSRP. The results showed an increase in student learning as a result of being in small
classes mostly for the early years of school, and when students came from a
socio-economic disadvantage (Watson et al., 2013).
As a result of these studies, researchers began to argue more strongly that reductions
in class size should not necessarily articulate into increases in student performance
(Hattie, 2009). The relationship between the reduction of class sizes and improved

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