Academic journal article Education Next

The Middle School Plunge: Achievement Tumbles When Young Students Change Schools

Academic journal article Education Next

The Middle School Plunge: Achievement Tumbles When Young Students Change Schools

Article excerpt

In 2010, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) school district shuttered four of its eight middle schools, opting to serve students in elementary schools spanning kindergarten through grade 8. In so doing, it followed in the footsteps of urban school districts such as Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and New York City, all of which have in the past decade expanded their reliance on the once ubiquitous K-8 model.

Not all school systems are moving in that direction. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a district with surprisingly low student performance given the substantial per-pupil resources at its command, the school committee has decided to try to boost student achievement by abandoning its K-8 model in favor of having separate middle schools that serve grades 6 through 8 (though, in an unusual twist, each of the latter will be housed in the same facility as an elementary school).

In short, policymakers nationwide continue to wrestle with a basic question: At what grade level should students move to a new school? In the most common grade configuration in American school districts, public school students make two school transitions, entering a middle school in grade 6 or 7 and a high school in grade 9. This pattern reflects the influence of enrollment pressures and pedagogical theories that, over the past half century, all but eliminated the K-8 school from the American education landscape. A small fraction of students do attend public schools encompassing grades K-8, 6-12, or even K-12, however. We exploit this variation by comparing the achievement trajectories of Florida students entering a middle school or a high school to those of their peers who do not make those transitions.

Our study extends research conducted in New York City (see "Stuck in the Middle," research, Fall 2010), in which Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood found that entering a middle school causes a sharp drop in student achievement relative to the performance of those remaining in K-8 schools. It is hard to know whether one can generalize from results from the nation's largest city (and school district), however, especially when it employs a complex procedure for assigning students to middle schools. Also, the New York City study was unable to follow students after 8th grade, making it impossible to know whether the negative impacts that were observed were temporary or extended into high school. This is a critical question inasmuch as a key rationale for middle school is its potential for easing the transition to high school. What is lost at the first transition may be more than gained at the second, which is presumably less abrupt for the middle-school child than for the one entering high school directly from an elementary-school environment.

To explore these issues, we use statewide data covering all students in Florida public schools who were in grades 3 to 10 between 2000 and 2009. Although a large majority of Florida students enter a middle school in grade 6, some do so in grade 7. Still others attend K-8 schools and avoid the middle-school transition altogether. To determine whether entering a middle school in grade 6 or grade 7 has any effect on achievement, we examine whether students experience a drop in test scores relative to students in K-8 schools that coincides with their transition to the new school. In the same way, we compare the learning trajectories of students entering high school in grade 9 to those of students who attend K-12, 6-12, or 7-12 schools in order to determine whether high-school transitions affect achievement.

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. …

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