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Research: School Policy Debate Programs Benefit Students’ Academic Outcomes

Participating middle and high school students improved their standardized test scores and were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

Audrey Breen

Boston Public School middle and high school students who participated in their school debate program for as little as 1.5 years experienced improvements in their English Language Arts standardized test scores and other academic benefits, according to a new study.

The research was conducted by Beth Schueler, assistant professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, and Harvard University's Katherine Larne and was recently published in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis in October. The researchers studied Boston Public School students who participated in the Boston Debate League, one program in network of national debate leagues working to expand debate access to students who have historically not been included in similar programs.

Schueler discussed the study and its findings in a video published by the American Educational Research Association. In the interview, she noted several implications from the study:

  • The study measured meaningful, positive academic benefits, including English Language Arts improvements and students’ increased likelihood to graduate from high school and attend college.
  • In an addition to overall ELA achievements, the researchers could identify subskills and found participating in the debate program impacted ELA achievement by improving students’ critical thinking and analytical skills.
  • This study provides an example of a program that improves literacy outcomes for middle and high school. With most programs aimed at improving literacy outcomes designed for primary school, this debate study highlights one of a limited number of programs for secondary students.
  • The study saw academic gains for students across the performance distribution, from high performing to low performing students. Specifically, however, the greatest gains were found among the lowest performing students.
  • This relatively cost-effective program benefits students who spent less than a year and a half participating and attended only a limited number of events.

You can also watch the full video online and read more about the study on the AERA news page.

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Audrey Breen

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  • EdPolicyWorks