Middle Grades Practices That Work: What High-Performing Middle Schools Do to Identify Students at Risk of Academic Failure and Get Them on Track Academically

Leadership, September-October 2010 | Go to article overview

Middle Grades Practices That Work: What High-Performing Middle Schools Do to Identify Students at Risk of Academic Failure and Get Them on Track Academically


All students leaving high school ready for college and career" has become the new mantra driving education reform. It represents high expectations for California's students and schools. But although this rhetoric focuses on high school completion, students need to be well prepared when they enter high school if these aspirational goals have any chance of succeeding.

It was with that reality in mind that Ed-Source released the largest study of middle grades education ever conducted. The study, "Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better," is helping to draw policymakers' and educators' attention to middle grades education as the last best chance to identify students at risk of academic failure and get them on track academically, prepared to take on a rigorous high school curriculum.

"I believe [this study] is one of the most important and timely research projects ever focused on the middle," said Peter Murphy, president of the California League of Middle Schools. The study has been endorsed by the National Middle School Association, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform, and the National Association of Secondary School Principals. It documents extensively--with concrete actionable examples--what higher-performing middle grades schools in California are doing to focus on, support and achieve high academic expectations for all students.

The three surveys at the heart of the study asked teachers, principals and school superintendents about a wide range of practices thought to have an impact on middle grades

student outcomes. The most powerful finding from the study was that higher-performing middle grades schools--regardless of school and student characteristics--consistently place an intense focus on improving academic outcomes for all students. They do this through an integrated set of practices and policies that reflects a significant school culture shift focused on preparing students for the future.

What higher-performing schools do to improve student achievement

Looking at the study findings, a picture emerges about what is likely happening in the typical higher-performing middle grades school, what the teachers and principal are doing to make it happen, and how the superintendent and school district support that work. Schools reported the following practices regardless of their grade configurations, their size, their district type, or the socioeconomic status of the students they served.

1. The schools set and monitor measurable goals on standards-based tests

The principals set the bar high by clearly communicating expectations for improved student outcomes. That includes putting a high priority on state and federal accountability goals, such as meeting Adequate Yearly Progress subgroup and Academic Performance Index growth targets. But in these schools, improving student outcomes is not just about simply meeting external accountability goals based on end-of-year California Standards Tests.

Instead, the schools emphasize improving CST scores for all students across all proficiency levels from "far below basic" to "advanced." They also set measurable goals for CST scores by grade level and subject area. At these schools, instructional time is protected from unnecessary interruptions.

The schools' teachers are also clear about the goals and see them as a top priority at their respective schools. And they work together in grade-level and/or subject-matter teams to set measurable goals for improving student outcomes on interim benchmark tests. One key to making that happen is that teachers have adequate common planning time.

All of this effort is supported and reinforced by the school district, which sets objectives for the middle grades that are explicit and measurable. The district also expects principals and staff to emphasize closing achievement gaps among subgroups of students and getting as many students to proficient as possible. …

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