Is a government-mandated reduced-class size policy likely to improve pupils’ achievement in France? The data says oui

French pupils from disadvantaged areas demonstrate lower achievement than their more affluent peers. In an effort to close this achievement gap, the French government issued a policy in 2017 reducing Year 2 class size in high-priority educational areas to no more than 12 pupils, extending to Year 3 classes and priority educational areas in 2018. In order to provide evidence regarding the feasibility of such a policy, researchers used data from a 2003 first-grade-class-size-reduction policy in France to examine its carry-over effects into the second grade.

The 2003 study involved assigning classrooms to either small (12 pupils/class n=100 classes) or large (20–25 pupils/class, n=100 classes) class sizes. At the start of the 2002–03 school year, children were pre-tested on pre-reading skills and matched. In post-tests at the end of the school year, results favoured the small-class-size group on word reading (ES = +0.14) and word spelling (ES = +0.22). These effects are very small in light of the costs of halving class size.

The new study examined these pupils’ reading achievement at the end of Year 3, where the pupils formerly placed in smaller classrooms had been placed in full-sized classes again. Subjects were 1,264 pupils (663 in the intervention group and 601 in the control group) who had received both the initial testing in Year 2 and had test scores at the end of Year 3. Results showed that while both groups were equivalent at the start of Year 2, and by the end of the year the small-class-size group showed greater academic achievement than the control group, this gain diminished over the summer break and had completely disappeared by the end of Year 3. That is, there was no long-term impact of one year of reduced class size.

For more information, the original 2003 study was reported in Best Evidence in Brief in July.

Source: Reducing the number of pupils in French first-grade classes: Is there evidence of contemporaneous and carryover effects? (November 2018), International Journal of Educational Research, Volume 96,

Small class size vs. evidence-based interventions

The Ministry of Education in France introduced a policy in 2002 that reduced class size to no more than 12 pupils in areas determined to have social difficulties and high proportions of at-risk pupils, called Zones d’Education Prioritaire (ZEP). In order to evaluate the effectiveness and usefulness of this policy, researcher Jean Ecalle and colleagues in France examined the results of the policy-mandated class size reduction on the reading achievement of first grade (Year 2) pupils (Study 1), and compared them to the effects of an evidence-based literacy intervention on the reading achievement of at-risk children in normal-sized classes (20 pupils) (Study 2).

Study 1, reducing class size, involved assigning classrooms to either small (12 pupils/class n=100 classes) or large (20–25 pupils/class, n=100 classes) class sizes (with the support of the Ministry). At the start of the 2002–03 school year, 1,095 children were pre-tested on pre-reading skills and matched at pre-test. At the end of the school year, children were post-tested, with results favouring the small-class-size group on word reading (effect size=+0.14) and word spelling (effect size=+0.22).

In Study 2, researchers separated 2,803 first grade (Year 2) pupils in ZEP areas into an experimental group who received an evidence-based reading intervention, and a control group who did not. The intervention was a protocol developed by the Association Agir pour l’Ecole (Act for School), who developed a hierarchy of teaching reading based on evidence-based methods of learning to read, progressing from training phonological skills, to learning letter sounds, decoding, and fluency. Act for School monitored compliance with the protocol weekly. Class size for both groups was 20 pupils. Experimental teachers received one day of training, and provided 30 minutes of teaching a day to average or high readers in groups of 10 to 12, and one hour a day for lower readers in groups of four to six. Again, children were pre-tested on reading skills and matched between groups. All areas post-tested favoured the experimental group, with significant effects in word reading (effect size=+0.13) and word spelling (effect size=+0.12).

Researchers stated that based on the results of both studies, the optimal recommendation to improve literacy skills for at-risk pupils would be a double intervention, combining evidence-based practices within small classes.

Source: Effects of policy and educational interventions intended to reduce difficulties in literacy skills in grade 1 (June 2019), Studies in Educational Evaluation, Volume 61

“Stereotype threat” affects girls in maths tests

“Stereotype threat” refers to the idea that negative stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, with individuals’ performance suffering as a result. In a new article, French researchers have examined whether the order in which tests are taken can affect girls’ maths performance. They conducted studies with French middle school pupils (Ns = 1,127 and 498), first with a maths test being taken before a verbal test, and then the other way around with the verbal test being taken first. The researchers predicted that taking the maths test before the verbal test would be detrimental to girls’ maths performance – a stereotype threat (ST) effect.

They found that girls underperformed on the maths test relative to boys in the maths-verbal order condition (ST effect), but performed as well as boys in the verbal-maths order condition. Moreover, girls’ maths performance was higher in the verbal-maths order condition than in the maths-verbal order condition. In a second study, additional measures looking at pupils’ self-evaluations in and perceptions of the maths and verbal domains provided complementary evidence that only girls who took the maths test first experienced ST.

In a previous issue of Best Evidence in Brief we reported on the influence of stereotype threat on the achievement of boys.

Source: Order of Administration of Math and Verbal Tests: An Ecological Intervention to Reduce Stereotype Threat on Girls’ Math Performance (2013),Journal of Educational Psychology.