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Harvard Study Links Many Academic Setbacks to Middle School Transition, Rather than High School

December 1, 2011

While policymakers and researchers alike have focused on improving students’ transition into high school, a new study of Florida schools suggests the critical transition problem may happen years before, when students enter middle school.

The studyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, part of the Program on Education Policy and Governance Working Papers Series at Harvard University, found that students moving from grade 5 into middle school show a “sharp drop” in math and language arts achievement in the transition year that plagues them as far out as 10th grade, even risking thwarting their ability to graduate high school and go on to college. Students who make a school transition in 6th grade are absent more often than those who remain in one school through 8th grade, and they are more likely to drop out of school by 10th grade.

“I don’t see eliminating the transition at the high school level as important or beneficial as eliminating the transition at the middle school level,” said Martin R. West, an assistant education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study.

According to the report’s executive summary:

We find that students entering middle school in grade 6 or 7 make larger achievement gains prior to middle school entry than those who do not enter middle schools. Moving to middle school, however, causes a substantial drop in their relative performance. Specifically, math achievement falls by 0.124 (0.221) standard deviations and reading achievement falls by 0.086 (0.148) standard deviations for transitions at grade 6 (grade 7). These students’ relative performance in both subjects continues to decline in subsequent middle school grades. Although our estimates of the negative effects of middle school attendance are largest in urban settings, they are substantial even in small towns and rural areas. We find little evidence that students who attended middle school make larger achievement gains than their peers’ in grades 9 and 10, by which time most students have made another transition into a high school. In addition, students who attended middle schools are 1.4 percentage points (i.e., 18 percent) more likely not to be enrolled in a Florida public school in grade 10 after having attended in grade 9 (a proxy for having dropped out of school by this grade).

Investigating the transition to high school, we find that students who will eventually enter high school make larger gains in math and reading between grades 6 and 8 than students who do not move into a new school in grade 9. From grade 8 to 9 they suffer a small but statistically significant drop in relative achievement of 0.026 standard deviations in math and 0.043 standard deviations in reading. However, their relative achievement trajectories become positive again after this immediate drop at the transition to high school.

The achievement drops we observe as students move to both middle and high schools suggest that structural school transitions (or being in the youngest cohort in a school) adversely impact student performance. The magnitude and persistence of the effect of entering a middle school, however, suggests that such transitions are particularly costly for younger students or that middle schools provide lower quality education than K-8 schools for students in grades 6 to 8. Although administrative data indicate that Florida middle schools spend less per student, have larger student-teacher ratios, and have much larger cohort sizes than K-8 schools, we find little evidence that these differences account for their negative effect on student achievement. Moreover, data from a recent survey of Florida principals conducted by Rouse et al. (2007) reveal few differences in the educational practices across schools with different grade configurations. The absence of compelling alternative explanations for the negative effects of middle school attendance suggests that adolescents may be more difficult to educate in settings that do not contain younger students.

Source:  Harvard University