The middle school plunge

When students move from elementary to middle school, their scores drop significantly in the first year compared to students in K-8 schools, conclude Martin West and Guido Schwerdt in The Middle School Plunge in Education Next. Middle-school students don’t catch up with K-8 students in high school.

The transition to high school causes a small drop in student achievement, but the decline does not appear to persist beyond grade 9.

Middle schools were created to ease the transition to high school, but gathering large numbers of pubescent children in one place doesn’t seem to create a good learning environment.

A number of urban districts are creating K-8 schools. It’s a good idea,write West and Schwerdt.


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  1. The drop could be better explained by the fact that middle school demands more proficiency in math – and for many, those skills are lacking.

    • tim-10-ber says:

      In our case the middle schools were too fearful of harming a child’s self esteem, had very weak math teachers and was easier than the 4th grade from which the kids came…very sad. Sure wish we abandoned middle school completely…

  2. ^^However, the study compares middle school students to age peers in K-8 schools. Why would students entering 6th grade in a middle school lag behind age peers who attend 6th grade in a K-8 school?

  3. All of my kids attended the same school between ES and HS. For the older two, it was a 7-8 JHS, with a strong academic format and focus. Against strong community opposition, it was a 6-7-8 MS when my younger kids arrived and the academic focus was almost lost in the team and touchy-feely focus, complete with NEST (nurture, encourage, support, trust, I think) every day – even though there were still honors sections of all academic classes (thankfully). Depending on the teacher – all teachers had sections – it could be torture, as it was for my third kid; all emotions, all-navel-gazing, all the time. The underlying assumption seemed to be that the kids were so focused on, and overwhelmed by, adolescence that they could not focus on academics; perhaps it turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy for some. Thankfully, my kids continued their academics and their elite sports and remained largely undistracted by their hormones and the social consequences thereof. Keep the expectations high…

  4. bill eccleston says:

    Don’t forget “Focus on the Wonderyears,” the 2004 Rand Corporation study of middle schools that also came to a number of conclusions critical of the middle school model. For example: from the standpoint of what we know of human developmental psychology, taking eleven year olds out of the only stable social environments they’ve known since kindergarten and putting them into the strange new and much larger social environments of middle schools just as adolescence is about to bloom is is a manifestly bad idea. As the critical, rapid changes of adolescence begin, developmental psychology suggests that a premium should be put on stability of social environment. Another conclusion, following in measure from that one, is that American middle school students are substantially less happy with their environments than peers in other countries who do not experience that disruption. American middle school kids feel less emotionally secure and less socially connected than their peers overseas. Furthermore, this study by Rand was absolutely buried by the “Middle School Movement” people, the “This We Believe” leaders of the state, regional and national Middle School organizations. I’d bet the farm that not one in a thousand US middle school principals ever read this study or could even identify it because at the top it was met with silence. You won’t find it in the syllabi of the middle school courses taught at the local state teacher’s college. The “Middleschoolistas” are afraid of it and no doubt will be afraid of this new study as well.

    • Obviously, I am no fan of the MS model, but both that and the JHS model offered some academic options that none of the k-8 schools (public, parochial or independent private) with which I am acquainted have offered and that is foreign languages and both algebra and geometry, and honors options for all academic classes except the first year of foreign languages. This is probably a factor of size, for the public and parochial schools, but I was surprised to discover that even expensive private schools, who attracted high-performing kids, did not usually offer them – and that was in the DC suburbs.

      • I wonder if this is still true. The middle school my daughter is zoned for has lost foreign language (sometime in the last 12 years), technical education and I believe home economics. They do offer band and orchestra, but so do the elementary schools. They do not have honors sections (school is about 600 students in 3 grades). Advanced math is offered by busing the students to the high school.
        With a few exceptions (the IB school in town), I just don’t see a lot of extra programs offered in the middle schools anymore. Traveling teachers could easily be used at the elementary level (and already are for art, music an PE at the smallest elementary schools and band and orchestra at all of the elementary schools).

      • I wonder if the focus on “honors” classes, foreign language, etc. in MS is really all its worth. My MS (in a large suburban district) did not offer foreign langauges and the rest when I attended, and I was still able to take college level French my senior year. I was honors all around in high school too.

        They now offer French and Spanish in 8th like the district I currently teach in, and from what I’ve seen of the curriculum, it is mostly cultural appreciation with exposure to common nouns and verbs, which was covered in about a semester (instead of a year) during 9th grade for me.

        As for the lack of honors classes, our standard core classes were rigorous enough that you really needed to understand the material and know how to apply it to get in the 90’s… teachers’ grades truly discriminated by ability and not effort.

        So, my MS did not have all the bells and whistles that so many now do, but it built such a rock solid foundation in the basics that students were more than prepared for HS.

        • I am not sure if this is still true, but when my kids were there, the honors were significantly more challenging – depth and pace- than the regular sections and the foreign languages I and II were HS-equivalent, even when it became a MS. My kids went on to take honors Spanish III as freshmen, the class was taught entirely in Spanish and that year pretty much finished all of the grammar. They went on to take honors 4, AP language and AP lit. Admittedly, it was a big school (4-500 per grade) and in an affluent, highly competitive area. The HS did then and still does require honors prerequisites for AP classes (honors chem prior to AP chem, honors world history prior to AP Euro etc), so the APs are truly college-level classes.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Everyone probably had a different experience as a kid — even if they’re the same age. But honors Chem and AP chem were the same class for us.

            Generally, if there was an honors class for a subject, that was the AP class.

          • In the Dark Ages, I attended Junior High, which would count as a middle school, or a 7th grade-entry middle school. It didn’t harm me, but then again, the system began tracking in 7th grade, and I was tracked into the upper math and science.

            It’s possible my grade cohort in that system might have shown an overall dip, due to the tracking. We didn’t have the testing modern kids must go through. It’s possible that keeping kids in untracked environments through 8th grade is better for the entirety of the grade.

            Tracking could be good for the upper level kids, but bad for everyone else, especially when all the students arriving in middle school must suddenly find a new identity.

  5. Not tracking in elementary school is a good thing—it sends the message that the school has high expectations for everyone.

    I think K-8 works for a couple of reasons, some of which have already been mentioned here—the stable environment, the ongoing relationships with teachers that you had when you were younger, and the opportunity for leadership. Eighth graders who know that the little kids are looking up to them and watching their every move just behave differently. Plus you can focus on academics instead of transitioning.

  6. Stacy in NJ says:

    I’m confused about the differing experiences with tracking. My elementary school began tracking in either the 4th or 5th grade -cannot quite remember which- back in the ’80’s. My local ES begins tracking for math and L/A “reading” in the 3rd grade. The kids still have a homeroom where they do history and science, such as it is, and still do art, music, gym, and P.E. together.

    The idea that we should’t begin tracking until 7th grade is insane. Kids are all over the map in math skill in particular by the time they reach 7th. How in the world could a teacher even hope to teach to such a wide scope of abilites?