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Study Uncovers a Key to Reversing Downward Trend in Test Scores


December 13, 2021

There’s new evidence that a good fit between student and school helps improve students’ math and reading performance. A study for think tank Cardus has found that American students whose religious identity matched that of their independent school outperformed their non-religious schoolmates on standardized math and reading tests. After controlling for socio-economic and other variables, religiously matched students scored five to nine percentile points* higher than unmatched students. Researchers observed the same effect in a variety of religious schools. The 8,817 students in the sample included Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, and various Eastern religious students. The study by Dr. Catharine Pakaluk, an assistant professor of social research and economic thought at The Catholic University of America, and Nicholas Swanson, an undergraduate student at The Catholic University of America, is the first to assess the value of a religious “good fit” in education.

“The study provides a novel approach to thinking about the value of religious schools, in which religious schools create particular value for members of their own faith community by virtue of belonging,” according to the Cardus study. “In the first test of this hypothesis … we observe sizable advantages in one data set for students matched to schools based on their religion.”

A Good Fit: How Matching Students and Schools by Religion Improves Academic Outcomes used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 in the United States. Researchers considered test scores from the PIAT Math standardized test and the ASVAB composite math-reading standardized test.

David Hunt, education program director at Cardus, says the findings have public policy implications.

“As governments look to reverse the downward trend in math and reading scores—and close the achievement gap—they need to consider the outsized beneficial effects of allowing students to match themselves to schools that are a good fit for them,” says Hunt. “It’s in the public’s best interest for educational systems to allow for and nurture a variety of school types to help create a good fit between student and school.”

A Good Fit: How Matching Students and Schools by Religion Improves Academic Outcomes is freely available online.

*What are percentiles?

In the context of standardized tests, percentiles measure how a student’s score ranks compared to other students writing the same test. A percentile of 51 indicates that a student has scored higher than 51% of the others writing the same test. If a match between student and school were to push that score nine percentile points higher to 60, the student’s standardized test score would be higher than 60% of other students. The magnitude of this change is enough to take an average-scoring student into above-average territory, or an above-average student into exceptionally high performance.


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