The middle school plunge: new research says students in k to 8 schools have higher achievement

Remember junior high schools? The debate over what grade configurations are right for school systems has been alive for decades, but a research paper released yesterday provides more evidence that students in K-8 schools do better academically and are less likely to drop out than students in free-standing middle schools.

"I do think that the evidence now shows that the transition to middle school is very difficult academically for many students and that middle schools themselves often struggle," said Harvard University professor Martin West. "I do think that school districts should consider changing their grade configuration when possible. Usually that will mean some (additional) costs. I would argue those costs would be justified in terms of improved academic outcomes."

West and German researcher Guido Schwerdt studied Florida testing data from students who were in grades three through 10 between 2000 and 2009. "Our results cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the middle-school experiment that has become such a prominent feature of American education. We find that moving to a middle school causes a substantial drop in student test scores (relative to that of students who remain in K–8 schools) the first year in which the transition takes place, not just in New York City but also in the big cities, suburbs, and small-town and rural areas of Florida," the study says.

West and Schwerdt say that the drop continues to worsen the longer the student is in middle school. So that by eighth grade, students are significantly behind compared to those who were in K-8 schools. And the effects last well into high school. The study shows that students who entered a free-standing middle school in grade six were more likely to have dropped out by the time they got to 10th grade than those in K-8 schools.

Why would the grade configuration change achievement? West said in an interview that he is not sure what factors are influencing the declines, but he and Schwerdt did look to see if perhaps K-8 schools had smaller class sizes, but found no differences.

"We are pretty confident it is not driven by differences in class sizes or other resources," he said.

What they did discover, however, is that middle schools have significantly larger grades. On average middle school grades had 124 more students in them than the middle schools. And that he said could be a factor.


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