Study: Participation in Debate Improves Graduation Rates

A new report published in Education Research and Reviews shows that urban students who participate in competitive policy debate programs are more likely to graduate from high school and achieve national college-readiness benchmarks than those who do not.

The report, "Impact of participating in a policy debate program on academic achievement: Evidence from the Chicago Urban Debate League" consisted of data that was provided by Chicago Public Schools and the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago. The study analyzed academic performance for students who participated in competitive policy debate in the Chicago Urban Debate League from 1997-2006.

Key findings were:

  • An estimated 90% of students who debated graduated, compared to 75% of those that hadn't debated students
  • Debaters had an increased likelihood of meeting college-readiness indicators
  • Students who participated in debate had higher average ACT test scores
  • The average cumulative GPA for high school graduation was 3.23 for debaters, compared to the 2.83 for similar students who did not participate

As students who participate in debate programs are characteristically more likely to gain greater academic achievements than their peers who do not participate in these programs, it has been difficult to truly quantify the direct impact of debate.

However, in this new report, Dr. Briana Mezuk applies a new analytic method that sets out to statistically match students on the likelihood that they may choose to participate in these programs. They then compared the outcomes of students who were equally likely to debate despite only some actually doing so.

To do this, the authors used thirteen characteristics known to be associated with academic achievement including middle school standardized test scores, enrollment in honors coursework, and poverty.

"This study demonstrates that participation in competitive debate dramatically changes outcomes for urban students. Debaters graduate high school prepared to succeed in college," said Linda Listrom, Executive Director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues.

"Unfortunately, more than one million students will drop out of high school this year, with the highest concentrations in large urban school districts."

"For this reason we must continue to extend the opportunity to compete in debate to more students."

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