Middle Schools Fail Kids, Study Says

Shelly Banjo

New York City’s standalone middle schools do a worse job educating students than schools that offer kindergarten through eighth grade under one roof, according to a new study to be released Wednesday by researchers at Columbia University.
On average, children who move up to middle school from a traditional city elementary school, which typically goes up to fifth grade, score about seven percentiles lower on standardized math tests in eighth grade than those who attend a K-8 school, says Jonah Rockoff, an associate professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Business who co-authored the study.
The disparity stems from the toll that changing to a new school takes on adolescents and differences in the sizes of grades, the study says. Typically, K-8 schools can fit fewer children in each grade than standalone middle schools.
“What we found bolsters the case for middle-school reform.” says Mr. Rockoff, noting that there aren’t significant differences in financial resources or single class sizes between the two types of schools. Standalone “middle schools, where kids are educated in larger groups, are not the best way to educate students in New York City.”
The research culls data for city school children who started in grades three through eight during the 1998-99 school year and tracks them through the 2007-2008 school year, comparing test scores, attendance rates and parent evaluations. Of the student sample, 15,000 students attended a K-8 school versus 177,000 who attended a standalone middle school.

The complete paper is available here:

We examine the implications of separating students of different grade levels across schools for the purposes of educational production. Specifically, we find that moving students from elementary to middle school in 6th or 7th grade causes significant drops in academic achievement. These effects are large (about 0.15 standard deviations), present for both math and English, and persist through grade 8, the last year for which we have achievement data. The effects are similar for boys and girls, but stronger for students with low levels of initial achievement. We instrument for middle school attendance using the grade range of the school students attended in grade 3, and employ specifications that control for student fixed effects. This leaves only one potential source of bias–correlation between grade range of a student’s grade 3 school and unobservable characteristics that cause decreases in achievement precisely when students are due to switch schools–which we view as highly unlikely. We find little evidence that placing public school students into middle schools during adolescence is cost-effective.
One of the most basic issues in the organization of public education is how to group students efficiently. Public schools in the U.S. have placed students of similar ages into grade levels since the mid-1800s, but grade configurations have varied considerably over time. At the start of the 20th century, most primary schools in the U.S. included students from kindergarten through grade 8, while the early 1900s saw the rise of the “junior high school,” typically spanning grades 7-8 or 7-9 (Juvonen et al., 2004). More recently, school districts have shifted toward the use of “middle schools,” which typically span grades 6-8 or 5-8.1 Interestingly, middle schools and junior high schools have never been popular among private schools.2
The impact of grade configuration has received little attention by economists relative to issues such as class size or teacher quality. There are a few studies which provide evidence that the transition to middle school is associated with a loss of academic achievement, elevated suspension rates, and reduced self esteem (Alspaugh (1998a, 1998b), Weiss and Kipnes, (2006), Byrnes and Ruby (2007), Cook et al. (2008)). There is also a large body of work by educational researchers and developmental psychologists documenting changes in attitudes and motivation as children enter adolescence (Eccles et al. (1984)), and some have hypothesized that instructional differences in middle schools contribute to these changes. However, these studies examine differences between middle school and elementary school students using cross-sectional data, and therefore are unable to reject the hypothesis that differences across students, rather than differences in grade configuration, are responsible for divergent educational outcomes.3
In this study, we use panel data in New York City to measure the effects of alternative grade configurations. Specifically, we focus on variation in achievement within students over time, and examine how student achievement is affected by movement into middle schools. Elementary schools in New York City typically serve students until grade 5 or grade 6, while a smaller portion extend through grade 8; thus most students move to a middle school in either grade 6 or grade 7, while some never move to a middle school. We find that achievement falls substantially (about 0.15 standard deviations in math and English) when students move to middle school, relative to their peers who do not move. Importantly, these negative effects persist through grade 8, the highest grade level on which test data are available.