School Sector and Student Achievement in the Era of Standards Based Reforms.

Author(s): William Carbonaro and Elizabeth Covey

Source: Carbonaro, William and Elizabeth Covey. 2010. “School Sector and Student Achievement in the Era of Standards Based Reforms.” Sociology of Education. 83.2.


For decades, research on school sector effects pointed to a consistent advantage in achievement for students who attend Catholic schools rather than public schools.  While results were similar, interpretation differed—some scholars interpreted differences in achievement as a “Catholic school advantage,” while others were more reserved, pointing to the small size of the advantage or the possibility that the differences between schools might be a result of differences between the students  who enroll in Catholic schools versus their public school peers.  

While early studies focused on students in secondary schools found advantage to Catholic school attendance, recent research on sector effects in primary school does not consistently demonstrate a higher return to Catholic schooling.  As Carbonaro and Covey point out, these discrepant findings could stem from one of two patterns: (1) decreasing returns to Catholic education from the second half of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st century, or (2) increasing returns to Catholic school attendance over the students’ life course.   In other words, because scholars looked at different levels of school during different eras, we do not know whether (1) Catholic schools no longer provide the advantage that they used to, or (2) if older students benefit from Catholic school attendance in ways that younger students do not.

Study Design:
Using the Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002, a panel study of over 13,000 high school students administered by the US Department of Education, Carbonaro and Covey examine whether there are sector effects for high school students during the same era as the recent studies of primary school sector effects.  Their goal is to determine which of the two possible patterns (decreasing Catholic school advantage over time, or increasing Catholic school advantage of the life-course) might explain differences in earlier findings.  They posit that the rise of standards based accountability reforms during the early 21st century might explain why the benefit of Catholic school attendance has decreased over time—as public schools increase the rigor of their curriculum to meet educational standards, the advantage of Catholic school would diminish.

Carbonaro and Covey use ordinary least squares regression to examine sector differences in course taking, gains in mathematics achievements test scores, and development of mathematic skills.  After accounting for student background and previous ability, the authors uncover four inter-related patterns.  Despite the advent of standards-based reforms, (1) students who attend Catholic high schools are still more likely to enroll in higher-level mathematics courses.  In addition to differences in course-taking, (2) math gains between 10th and 12th grade are higher for Catholic and private (secular) high school students than for their public school counterparts.  Furthermore, (3) these gains are concentrated among medium and advanced-level math skills.  Importantly, (4) nearly all of the Catholic and private school advantage in math gains and higher-level math skills is explained by sector differences in mathematics course-taking.  In other words, because students at Catholic and secular schools enroll in more advanced math courses, they learn more and have a mastery of higher-level math skills.

This paper fills an important gap in our understanding of the advantage of attending a private secular or Catholic high school.  Like previous research on sector effects, though, causal arguments are weakened by the inability to control for selection—because students are not randomly assigned to school sector, we are not able to fully measure the value-added of private secular or Catholic school attendance.  Carbonaro and Covey’s primary finding that course enrollment accounts for the majority of the Catholic school advantage falls in line with “common core” explanations of sector effects—the theory that students at Catholic schools benefit from limited course offerings in private schools that focus curriculum on more advanced topics.  Other theories, such as those that suggest intergenerational closure or communal organization as generators of advantage for Catholic school students, point more to the social structure of Catholic schools as mechanisms through which student achievement at Catholic schools outpaces achievement at public schools.

Keywords: Sector effects, Catholic School Effects, Math Achievement, ELS2002

Sector: Catholic,  Private,  Public

Outcomes: Academic,  School Choice

Date Posted: 2016-02-01