SC Study Shows Link Between School Librarians and Higher Test Scores

Trying to convince administrators of your value? This study, unique because it documents the contribution of school librarians through the use of test results for specific ELA and writing standards, provides ammunition.
SCarolina_infographic The members of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians (SCASL) have always known how important school librarians and library programs are to student achievement in their state; however, they needed a way to prove it to administrators, teachers, parents, and legislators who were yet to be convinced. To develop their case, in 2013, the SCASL board commissioned a study conducted by Keith Curry Lance, consulting with RSL Research Group president Marcia J. Rodney and vice president Bill Schwarz. The group had previously conducted 17 school library impact studies in 14 states. As with those studies, data from How Libraries Transform Schools by Contributing to Student Success: Evidence Linking South Carolina School Libraries and PASS & HSAP Results revealed that school library programs contribute to student success. “We have known in the past how important our role is, but this groundbreaking study proves that and validates what we already know: The school librarian and the library program help make schools stronger,” says Diana Carr, president of SCASL at the time of the study. Our South Carolina study is the first to document the contribution of school librarians to student success through the use of test results for specific English language arts (ELA) and writing standards. The study links data to detailed test results for three ELA standards—literary text, informational text, and research—and two writing standards—content and organization. The data was drawn from test results from South Carolina Palmetto Assessment of State Standards (PASS) for elementary and middle school students and South Carolina High School Assessment Program (HSAP). Seven school library characteristics were associated with these measures of student achievement. The links could not be explained away by demographics such as gender, race/ethnicity, disability, and subsidized or free meals eligibility.

Library Staffing

The South Carolina study supports the findings of previous state studies that better test results tend to be associated with the presence of professional school librarians and library support staff. In South Carolina, all students were more likely to show strengths and less likely to show weaknesses on PASS writing standards, both overall and on content and organization, if their school libraries were staffed by at least one full-time librarian and at least one full- or part-time assistant, than if their libraries were staffed otherwise. Table 1

Library Expenditures

Studies in more than a dozen states have shown that higher spending on school library programs has been linked to better results on achievement tests. This relationship was further confirmed in the South Carolina study, as indicated by PASS writing and ELA test results. For all students, higher total library spending was associated with more students showing strengths and fewer showing weaknesses on the PASS writing standards, both overall and on content and organization. Higher spending on school libraries was also associated with more students having exemplary results on PASS ELA standards, and fewer students not meeting those standards.

Instructional Collaboration Between Teachers and Librarians

Effective school librarians collaborate with classroom teachers to help students develop information literacy skills across the curriculum. Librarians at schools that responded to the South Carolina School Library Survey, and for which PASS results were available, reported spending about 20 hours per week on teaching activities. The top 25 percent spent 25 or more hours, while the bottom 25 percent spent less than 10 hours. Generally, where librarians spent 20 or more hours per week teaching, all students were more likely to have exemplary results on PASS ELA standards and less likely not to meet those standards. Table2

Circulation Numbers

Students and teachers alike rely on information obtained via the Internet, whether from free websites or licensed databases. The role of ebooks is also expanding. Nonetheless, books and other traditional print and non-print materials are still responsible for the majority of library circulation transactions, particularly those associated with reading and those used for writing assignments. In South Carolina, for the 2012–2013 school year, the median circulation of library materials among elementary and middle schools that responded to the South Carolina School Library Survey and for which PASS test results were available was approximately 20,000 checkouts. On a per-student basis, the median was 36 checkouts. Findings from the study revealed that all students were more likely to show strengths on the PASS writing standards if their libraries circulated at least 20,000 items. Similarly, for all students higher total circulation was associated with exemplary results on ELA standards. Further, per-student circulation was associated with an even broader array of student cohorts for ELA results. All students were more likely to have exemplary ELA results and less likely to fail to meet these standards where per-student circulation was higher. Table 3 Circulation at high school libraries is typically lower than at elementary and middle school libraries. For schools that responded to the 2013 South Carolina School Library Survey, and for which HSAP results were available, the median for total circulation was approximately 7,500 checkouts for the 2012–13 school year. All students were more likely to meet HSAP standards if their school libraries circulated more materials. Similarly, all students were also more likely to have proficient or better results on HSAP standards.

Collection Size

Elementary and middle schools that responded to the South Carolina School Library Survey and for which PASS results were available had a median print collection of approximately 10,000 items. The top quarter had around 13,000 items or more, and the bottom quarter have fewer than 7,500 items. Both male and female students were more likely to show strengths on writing and to have exemplary results on ELA if their libraries had larger print collections. Although ebooks are gaining in popularity nationwide, they are still relative newcomers to South Carolina’s school libraries. The median size of an ebook collection was 40 titles. Female and male students with access to larger ebook collections were more likely to show strengths and less likely to show weaknesses on PASS writing standards. In addition, poorer students, those eligible for subsidized or free meals, were more likely to show writing strengths.

Access to Computers

Results demonstrated that access to computers in the school library, and library-networked computers in other school locations, facilitate student achievement. All students, especially male, Hispanic, those who speak limited English, and those eligible for free meals, were more likely to show strengths and less likely to show weaknesses on PASS Writing standards, and have exemplary ELA results, if their school libraries had computers.

Frequency of Group Visits to the Library

As demonstrated in previous state studies, the number of times classes visited the school library each week boosted student learning in integral ways. The large majority of South Carolina school administrators reported that they felt it was essential that access to the school library was based on instructional needs, rather than on a fixed schedule. For elementary and middle schools that responded to the South Carolina School Library Survey and for which PASS results were available, the average number of weekly group library visits was four. As displayed in below, all students were more likely to show strengths and less likely to show weaknesses on PASS writing standards when they had four or more group visits per week. Table4 For high schools that responded to the South Carolina School Library Survey and for which HSAP results were available, the average number of group visits per week was 15. This is a dramatically higher number than the four for elementary and middle schools, where flexibly scheduled access to school libraries tends to be less common. The study revealed that all high-school students were more likely to meet HSAP standards if they had 15 or more group visits per week.

Librarians as Leaders

In addition to the previous data that was collected for the study, the survey responses of South Carolina school administrators (273), teachers (917) and school librarians (321) were obtained and compared to test results from PASS for elementary and middle schools. Notably, as a result of the availability of standard-level test results, South Carolina is the first state in which such a study has been conducted with this type of detailed analysis. Furthermore, over 430 of the survey respondents shared their comments about the library programs and librarians in their schools. One of the key findings from the survey results, test scores, and success stories is that the majority of school administrators value library policies and practices, as well as the leadership roles that school librarians play in their schools. In the words of a district director of planning and development, “Our librarians are leaders in our district. … It is so wonderful to see (them) share their passion for reading and learning not only with our students, but with our teachers! No longer are the libraries in our district a place where our students go to quietly pull a dusty encyclopedia off of the shelf. .. (they) serve as the hub of the school. ... are exciting places, and our students are benefiting from it.” The findings from this study provide evidence that South Carolina’s school librarians and school library programs make a difference in student achievement. Further, these findings are consistent with previous studies revealing associations between the academic performance of students and a variety of school library characteristics.
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Elizabeth Fisher

Just a word about stats on high schools reading verses middle school and elementary school reading stats- our high school students move from one required class set read to the next with little time in their schedules for truly reading novels of choice. My circulation stats reflect the hours I spend researching and ordering the popular novels. I also spend a tremendous amount of time writing grants to ensure I can provide quality books for our teens! Both the amount of reading specific novels coupled with funding constraints play a role in your stat.

Posted : Dec 30, 2016 03:25


I'm currently working on a grad school assigment on this topic. Perfect timing. Thank you!

Posted : Apr 11, 2016 10:11

Corinne Altham

Mainers: how can we convince our state to support and fund this type of analysis?

Posted : Mar 24, 2016 07:02

Ben Chadwick

Great article. Can you please tell me, did the study control for factors such as total school funding, student to teacher ratio, parent's education and occupation... The kinds of things that might suggest it is the wider school context that contributes to both library status and student acheivement independently. Otherwise the cynics just say "the kinds of schools that have high performing kids are the kinds of schools that can afford the luxury of well resourced libraries". Thanks.

Posted : Mar 17, 2016 11:29

Karen Gavigan

Ben, thanks for your comment, which highlights a very important issue in research such as SC’s school library impact study: control variables. You are quite right; cynics easily dismiss the results of studies that do not control for inequalities in society and in the education system that might explain away findings. You mention several potential control variables—including school funding, student-teacher ratio, and parental education. During the first decade of school library impact studies (from 2000), studies in multiple states found that the impact of such school variables is very largely, if not entirely, explained away by socio-economic variations. Accordingly, in all of the studies in which Lance and his RSL Research Group colleagues have been involved more recently, socio-economic differences between schools have always been controlled for. In more recent years, as in the SC study, this control variable was included by examining library-related differences in test scores for all students as well as for students who are and aren’t eligible for free and reduced-cost meals (the most commonly used proxy for socio-economic status, or SES). Consistently, across many states, it has been found that library-associated differences in test performance cannot be explained away by SES. In addition to SES, more recent studies have also looked at test score differences associated with gender, racial/ethnic differences, disability status, and language status. Please consult the full report on the SC study for details regarding such additional control variables. As with SES, recent studies have found that most test score differences associated with libraries also persist despite such other variables. Due to space limitations, the short SLJ article did not provide an opportunity to address these issues.

Posted : Mar 22, 2016 05:38



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