The Middle School Plunge

March 9, 2012

In various school districts across the country, administrators remain unsure about the optimal policy regarding school transitions from elementary to middle school.  Some are increasingly moving toward separate K-5 and 6-8 schools, while others embrace a K-8 system that sidesteps the middle school transition altogether, say Martin West, an assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Guido Schwerdt, a researcher at the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, Germany.

Studies on this subject attempt to compare the various systems -- transitions from elementary school to middle school are typically marked by a slump in student achievement, but less attention has been paid to these students' progress in later years, specifically in transitioning to high school.  To this end, West and Schwerdt recently tracked the progress of students in Florida and found that the middle school transition is substantial.

  • Math achievement falls by 0.12 standard deviations and reading achievement falls by 0.09 standard deviations for transitions at grade 6.
  • This equates to a drop between 3.5 and 7 months of expected learning over the course of a 10 month school year.
  • Furthermore, this drop persists for all three years of middle school with students who entered in sixth grade scoring 0.23 standard deviations in math and 0.14 standard deviations in reading worse than would have been expected had they attended a K-8 school.
  • Additionally, these students do not perform significantly better than their K-8 peers upon entering high school, undermining the argument that making the middle school transition better prepares them for the high school transition.
  • Finally, entering a middle school in sixth grade was found to increase the probability of early dropout by 1.4 percentage points (or 18 percent).

These results held true both for urban and rural school comparisons.  In attempting to identify factors that contribute to this disparity, researchers analyzed data regarding school policies, funding and grade sizes, but found that none of these variables were significant.

They did, however, identify that the general school "atmosphere" differed significantly between traditional middle schools and K-8 schools.  Specifically, students benefitted from being the oldest students in a school that included very young children, as this presented them with leadership opportunities that contributed to student achievement.

Source: Martin West and Guido Schwerdt, "The Middle School Plunge," Education Next, Spring 2012.

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