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Debate Proven to Boost Standardized Test Scores

The proof we all already knew about debate

Whether you are the top debater in the country or you are just starting out on your competitive journey, the results are conclusive: participation in competitive debate increases standardized test scores and academic achievement across the board.

For students who have spent their weekends at debate tournaments or weeks of their summers at debate camps, it is quite apparent why debaters perform better than their peers in classrooms and on tests. Preparing for debate tournaments and competing against students from around the country challenges student faculties in abstract, creative, and critical thinking. Students are required to research advanced subjects in law, culture, and international affairs and then format their findings into well-written and persuasive cases for both sides of every debate resolution. And this is all before they even participate in a debate round!

For those who haven’t participated in debate firsthand, it might be helpful to see what the research says about the ways in which participating in debate improves academic achievement in general and standardized test scores in particular.

Researchers have found a connection between participation in debate and higher test scores. The first major study to use national standardized tests was conducted by K.D. Barfield (1989). He used the Stanford Achievement Test, seventh edition (also called the SAT-7), to evaluate claims about critical thinking skills in high school debate students.

Barfield studied a total of 300 students from three different private schools in the southeastern U.S. Half of the students had been involved in highly competitive debate programs for at least two years, and the other half were non-debate students who were carefully paired to the debate students on the basis of class rank and course loads. Barfield compared the percentile scores of the SAT-7 prior to the debate students engaging in academic debating to the percentile scores of the SAT-7 after two years of competitive debate; the percentile scores for the non-debate students were compared for a similar time period. Barfield also compared the grade point averages (GPAs) of both sets of students. What he found was a “statistically significant increase” in reading comprehension scores. He also found a correlation between active participation in a highly competitive interscholastic debate program and increase in student GPA.

The second important study in this era of standardized test scores was the study conducted by L.M. Collier (2004) on the impact of participation in high school debate on reading scores. Collier administered the Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) as a test to students who participated in competitive debate, as well as other students who did not participate in competitive speaking: a total of 421 students, from 22 high schools in five cities. Teachers at each of the schools recommended debate students for the study, as well as students who had not participated in debate for the control group. After the debate season was completed, again, Collier administered the SRI to all students. Based on the test scores, Collier concluded that participants in debate scored 25% higher on the reading test than those in the control group and 18% higher than the control subgroup of students. Collier suggested that the research requirements of debate motivated students to read and comprehend a wider variety of materials than other students. Collier thus concluded, “Two results are clear – debaters achieve significantly higher grades and intend to attend college at a substantially greater rate than their non-debating peers.”

The research is clear there is no debate when it comes to the powerful impact participation in debate can have on grades and test scores. If somehow you still need to be convinced that debate is a transformative academic activity, the best thing you can do is see for yourself.

It does not matter if you are starting your debate career or you are an experienced competitor that is looking to take your performance to the next level. During the summer and throughout the school year, Capitol Debate has a combination of online classes, weekly workshops and two-week summer camps for rising 4th through 12th graders. Take advantage and register today!