Examining the Long-Term Impact of Achievement Loss during the Transition to High School

By Smith, Joshua S. | Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Examining the Long-Term Impact of Achievement Loss during the Transition to High School


Smith, Joshua S., Journal of Secondary Gifted Education


Research shows that prior academic achievement is a strong predictor of future academic performance. For some students, the transition from one educational environment to another is associated with academic challenges and achievement loss. This study examined the extent to which achievement loss during the transition from middle school to high school later impacted college outcomes. Using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study 1988/2000 (NELS: 88/2000), the results from a logistic regression analysis suggest that high-achieving middle school students who experienced achievement loss were more likely to leave their first college than high-achieving students who did not experience achievement loss.

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All students encounter educational transitions. Some school configurations include multiple transitions (e.g., elementary to middle school; middle school to high school; and high school to college, work, or the military). Other organizational structures require less transition, such as K-8th grade schools followed by a traditional high school model of 9th-12th grade. Recently, some schools have embraced a 7th-12th-grade model, removing the middle to high school transition, while other schools are using freshman centers to aid in a smooth transition from middle school to high school. The research on educational transitions is limited, but there are studies of the transition to middle school (Akos & Galassi, 2004), the transition to high school (Mizelle, 1999; Schumacher, 1998), and the transition to college (Banning, 1989; Rummel, Acton, Costello, & Pielow, 1999; Strage, 1999). However, no empirical study has examined the impact of one educational transition on a future educational transition. Additionally, few studies have focused on the challenges of educational transitions for high-achieving students, which may be due to several studies finding that previous academic achievement, as measured by class rank, grade point average (GPA), and curriculum intensity, was a strong predictor of future academic success (Adelman, 2006; Ingels et al., 2002).

Overall, high-achieving middle school and high school students perform quite well in the semester following their educational transition to high school and/or college, respectively; however, a subset of high-achieving students experience substantial achievement loss or failure after the transition. Although achievement loss is described as a normative process, the long-term impact of achievement loss in high-achieving students is missing from the literature on educational transitions. The purpose of this study was to examine the impact of one educational transition on a future educational transition. Specifically, I examined the hypothesis that achievement loss in the transition from middle school to high school is associated with college attrition for a nationally representative cohort of high-achieving eighth graders in the United States.

Middle School to High School Transition

There are several factors associated with academic success in high school including parent involvement, parental expectations, prior achievement, eighth-grade course difficulty, socioeconomic status (SES), and student attitudes toward school (Ingels et al., 2002). In addition to student and family factors, unique attributes of the school structure, such as the number of peers attending the same high school (Schiller, 1999), the quality of teachers (Lankford, Loeb, & Wyckoff, 2002), and the presence of specific transition programs (Smith, 1997) impact the ease of transition and subsequent achievement. For example, a difficult transition from eighth grade to ninth grade has been associated with increased behavior problems (Graber & Brooks-Gunn, 1996) and high school dropout rates (Alspaugh, 1998a; Smith, 1997). Even when peers are supportive, students experience a drop in GPA that researchers have speculated is associated with the distracting nature of peer relationships (e. …

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