Does School Size Effect Student Performance?

Why is this question important?  Over the past 75 years schools in the United States have increased in average enrollment more than 400% (Gardner, Ritblatt, & Beatty, 2000).  It is important stakeholders be aware of what effects this may have on student achievement including the rate of student dropout rates.

See further discussion below.


The Impact of High School Size on Math Achievement and Drop Out Rates
Werblow & Duesbery, 2009)



Graph #1: Average Enrollment – 2006 Digest of Education Statistics, Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education Statistics  -

NAEP Scores: 2005-06 Nations Report Care, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education -

Graph #2: The Impact of High School Size on Math Achievement and Drop Out Rates, Werblow , J. & Duesbery, L., 2009 -


Graph #1: Average Enrollment – 2006 Digest of Education Statistics, Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education Statistics  -

NAEP Scores: 2005-06 Nations Report Care, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education -

Graph #2: The Impact of High School Size on Math Achievement and Drop Out Rates, Werblow , J. & Duesbery, L., 2009 -

Wing Institute Literature Review: The Wing Institute conducted an analysis of 25 studies on the relationship between school size and student performance.

  1. Sixteen studies were found to be relevant to the topic of school size and student performance and included in this report
  2. All of the eight major studies conducted since 1980
  3. The papers are as follows:
    • three of the studies consisted of literature reviews
    • one study identified as meta-analyses
    • ten studies were characterized as individual studies
    • two studies were identified as Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM)
    • one study was a case study

Studies of School Size on Student Performance


Type of Study





Eberts, Keyhole, & Stone, 1984 - The effects of school size on student outcomes

An individual study

A study of 287 elementary schools. Dependent variable: achievement scores. Independent variables: size, climate characteristics

Small schools under 200, medium 400-600 had little impact on student performance, performance declined as schools topped 800

Did not control for schools locations

Go to article

Lee & Smith, 1997 - Effects of High School Restructuring and Size on Gains in Achievement and Engagement for Early Secondary School Students

An individual study

A study of 9,812 set of student records from 789 high schools. Dependent variables: math and reading achievement. Independent: size and SES

Students in schools smaller than 600 and larger than 900 expressed lower scores. The effect stronger for low SES.

Did not account for school input data (counts of teachers, support staff, & classrooms. Data could be biased

Go to article

Lindsay, P.  1982 - The effects of High School Size on Student Participation, Satisfaction, and Attendance

An individual study

A study of 14,668 students in 328 elementary schools. Dependent variable: extra-curricular participation, student satisfaction, & attendance. Independent: size, student ability, & average. SES

Schools with 100 pupils or less in both urban and rural areas had higher extra-curricular activity rates, satisfaction, & attendance, controlling for SES and ability.

The use of survey data. Did not include a variable for suburban schools, instead pooled results for urban and suburban.

Go to article

Monk & Haller, 1993 - Predictors of High School Academic Course Offerings: The Role of School Size

An individual study

A study of survey data from 682 New York state public high schools. Dependent variable: high school course offerings. Independent: size, location, union, graduating class-size, and average. SES

In both rural and urban, high schools with 100 students per graduating class were large enough to offer a diversified curriculum.

Did not include a variable for suburban schools. Additionally, curricular diversity was defined as the "total number" of academic and vocational offerings, and did not account for quality.

Go to article

Wendling, W. & Cohen, J., 1981 - Education Resources and Student Achievement: Good News for Schools

An individual study

A study of 1,021 New York State elementary schools. Dependent variables: reading and math achievement. Independent: size, teacher-pupil ration, SES, and years of parental schooling.

High-achieving schools has a mean size of 447 students, and low achieving had a mean of 776. Controlling for SES, size had a negative effect on achievement

The study only examined the third grade.

Go to article

Kathleen Cotton 1996 - School Size, School Climate, and Student Performance

A Meta-analysis

Comprised of 103 studies: achievement - 31, attitudes - 19, social behavior - 14, extra-curricular activity - 17, belonging - 6, interpersonal relations 14, attendance - 16, and dropout rate - 10, self-concept - 9, college related variables - 6

There is no clear agreement of the optimum school size, There is a large base of information, but little on the issue of schools within schools (SWS). There is little evidence to suggest larger is more cost effective, Achievement is at least as good in small as large. Attendance is better in small. Dropout rates higher in large. Low-SES are adversely affected by large.

Many of the studies had methodological problems

Go to article

John Slate & Craig Jones 2005 - Effects of School Size: A review of the Literature with Recommendations

A literature Review

The review focused on studies of effects of size on cost, diversity of curriculum, achievement, and related variables.

The assumption that larger schools are more cost effective is flawed appears as a curvilinear relationship with small and large schools the most expensive, The preponderance of data did not support a curricular advantage for either size model, and achievement is represented as curvilinear relationship when the SES status of schools is correlated with size.

Many of the studies had methodological problems and that school size is an indirect causal factor impacting school quality

Go to article

Lindsay Page, Carolyn Layzer, Jennifer Schimmenti, Lawrence Bernstein, and Leslie Horst 2002 - National Evaluation of Smaller Learning Communities

A literature review

Included in the review were: 3 cost studies, 25 case studies, and 27 outcome based studies (2 experimental designed and 3 quasi-experimental). They were able to establish effect sizes for nine studies.

Academic achievement: small sizes were positively correlated to students with low-SES status and larger schools correlated to a minimal positive impact for students of high-SES status. Smaller schools had lower dropout rate, higher graduation rates, and higher attendance. Small and large schools were determined to be equally costly effective.

The effect size tables could not be obtained through ABT Associates, the organization sponsoring the research.

Go to article

Craig Howley 1996 - Compounding Disadvantages: The Effects of School and District Size on Student Achievement in West Virginia

An individual study

A replication of the California study by Friedkin & Necochea 1988. Both schools and districts were analyzed across the state of West Virginia. Students in the 3rd, 6th, 9th, and 11th grade were included. Dependent variable: Student achievement. Independent: size, and SES

The study indicated a pattern of interaction between size and SES consistent with the results of Friedkin & Necochea 1988. Large schools correlated with low achievement of low-SES and higher achievement for higher-SES. The pattern was less in the lower grades and more pronounced in the higher grades

More robust measures of SES would be needed for West Virginia. Small size by itself is not a solution to the problems of low-achieving student with low-SES status.

Go to article

Craig Howley & Robert Bickel 1999 - The Matthew Project National Report

An individual study

The study examines data for school size in four additional states: Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and Montana. The dependent variable: Student achievement and the independent size and SES. The method was to use the data in regression equations to identify possible effects of size by showing the effects of achievement on differing SES communities.

The study shows that an interaction exists between SES status and improved student achievement for smaller schools in the states of Ohio, Georgia, and Texas. A weaker effect was found for Montana. This data was consistent for all grades. This work supports the data that had been found for studies in West Virginia, Alaska, and California.

This study is not capable of providing a definite answer for policy makers regarding the issue of school size. A key question remains regarding the key question, What is the source of the interaction effect found in these studies?

Go to article

Jacob Werblow & Luke Duesbery 2009 - The Impact of High School Size on Math Achievement and Drop Out Rates

Hierarchical Linear Modeling (HLM) and Hierarchical Generalized Linear Modeling (HGLM) techniques

The study examines the effectiveness of various practices used in creating smaller learning communities (SLCs).

The study found support for reduced drop out rate of 12% for smaller schools. The impact of size on math performance offered curvilinear results with students attending smaller and larger schools demonstrating the best performance in math. The size of the effect was unfortunately, making an improvement of only 5% of the difference in math growth over two years.

There were issues with the differences in the two years of the ELS data that may confound the results. The ELS data could not differentiate small schools from small learning communities that could impact the results, as some of these models may not be as effective as small schools.

Go to article

Gregory, T., 1992 - Small is Too Big: Achieving a Critical Anti-Mass in the High School

A case study

The case study of Jefferson County Colorado and the effects of size on the county's schools

The study found small schools benefit school climate and reduced costs

The case study provides little in knowledge that can be generalized to other settings.

Go to article

Toenjes, L.A., 1989 - Drop out Rates in Texas School Districts: Influences on School Size and Ethnic Groups

An individual study

Longitudinal dropout rates (LDR's) for public school students and LDR's of pupil ethnic grouping based on two Texas Education Agency reports.

Findings dispel the prevalent perception of the dropout problem as primarily a nonwhite problem and school size being a strong factor in determining degree of dropout risk.

The study was not available for review.

Go to article

Pittman, R.B. & Haughwout, P. 1987 - Influence of High School Size on Drop out rate

An individual study

The study used NCES statistics to establish link between school size and drop out rate. Data from 744 public high schools was used test the influence of school size on school climate and dropout rate.

The study suggests a potential links between school size and dropout rate attributable to the social climate.

The schools were not selected randomly impacting on the ability generalize the results

Go to article

Lee, VS.. & Loeb, J., 2000 - School Size in Chicago Elementary Schools: Effects on teachers' attitudes and students' achievement

Hierarchical linear modeling (HLM)

 A study of data from 5,000 teachers and 23,000 6th and 8th-grade students in 264 K-8 Chicago schools. The data were collected through 1997 surveys and annual standardized tests to determine student learning and students' yearly gains in math achievement scores and teacher attitudes.

On both outcomes, small schools (enrolling fewer than 400 students) are favored compared with medium-sized or larger schools. Learning was also higher in schools with higher levels of collective responsibility.

The schools were not randomly selected limiting the generalizability of the results

Go to article

2007, The Educational Impact of the Size of Primary Schools

A literature Review

The Dublin City University School of Education Studies conducted this review. 60 studies were reviewed to determine the optimum size of schools for costs and impact on students.

Student achievement is marginally greater for small schools, Students exhibit fewer incidents of disruptive behavior, but larger schools can favor advantaged students

The review appears adequate and includes the majority of studies identified in the common literature reviews.

Go to article

Friedkin & Necochea, 1988 - School System Size and Performance: A Contingency Perspective

An individual study

Data for third, sixth, eighth, and twelfth graders from the 1983-84 California Assessment Program are examined in this study. The variables included were school size, student SES status, and school performance.

This study finds a relationship between a student’s socioeconomic status (SES) and school size.

Advances in hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) could offer additional understand the relationship between school sizes, and student achievement.

Go to article


Cotton, K. (1996). School size, school climate, and student performance. School improvement Research Series Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory. Retrieved November 23, 2009, from

Dublin City University School of Education Studies. (2007). The Educational Impact of the Size of Primary Schools. Retrieved November 23, 2009, from

Eberts, R. W., Kehoe, E., & Stone, J. A. (1984). The Effect of School Size on Student Outcomes. Final Report. (ED245382). Retrieved November 30, 2009 from ERIC database.

Friedkin, N. E. & Necochea, J. (1988). School System Size and Performance: A Contingency Perspective. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 10(3), 237-249.

Gregory, T. (1992). Small Is Too Big: Achieving a Critical Anti-Mass in the High School. (ED361159). Retrieved November 30, 2009 from ERIC database.

Howley, C. (1996). Compounding disadvantage: The effects of school and district size on student achievement in West Virginia.