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The Middle School Plunge

According to a new study by Assistant Professor Martin West and Guido Schwerdt of the University of Munich’s Ifo Institute, students who attend middle schools are at risk of dropping out of high school

As compared to students in K-8 elementary schools, middle school students also score lower on achievement tests.  Losses amount to as much as 3.5 to 7 months of learning.

Cambridge, MA -- A new study of statewide data from all Florida public schools finds that moving to a middle school in grade 6 or 7 causes a substantial drop in student test scores relative to those of students who remain in K-8 schools, and increases the likelihood of dropping out of high school.

In the past ten years, urban school districts such as New York City, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg have reorganized some middle schools along the once-prevalent K-8 model. The study’s findings support these school conversions and “are also relevant to the expanding charter school sector, which has the opportunity to choose grade configurations” when schools are established. An article presenting the research, “The Middle School Plunge: Achievement tumbles when young students change schools,” is available at and will appear in the Spring, 2012 issue of Education Next.

Data on state math and reading test scores for all Florida students attending public schools in grades 3 to 10 from the 2000-01 through 2008-09 years were analyzed. The researchers also conducted a test-score analysis separately for schools in Miami-Dade County, which is Florida’s largest district (345,000 students) and offers a wide range of grade configurations up through grade 8. They find that “the negative effects of entering a middle school for grade 6 or grade 7 are, if anything, even more pronounced in Miami-Dade County than they are statewide.”

The research found that students who make school transitions at grade 7 experience drops in achievement of 0.22 and 0.15 standard deviations in math and reading, respectively. For those making the transition at grade 6, math achievement falls by 0.12 standard deviations, and reading achievement falls by 0.09 standard deviations. These declines in achievement amount to between 3.5 and 7 months of expected learning over the course of a 10-month school year.

The relative achievement of middle-school students continues to decline through grade 8.  For example, students who entered in 6th grade score 0.23 standard deviations lower in math and 0.14 standard deviations lower in reading by the end of 8th grade than would have been expected had they attended a K-8 school.

Nor do the researchers find evidence that students who attend middle schools make larger achievement gains than their K-8 peers in grades 9 and 10, by which time most Florida students have entered high school. On the contrary, they show that entering a middle school in 6th grade increases the probability of dropping out of high school by grade 10 by 18 percent (1.4 percentage points).

The negative effects of entering a middle school are somewhat smaller outside of urban districts, but they remain substantial even in rural areas. Among student subgroups, the study finds that black students suffer larger drops both at and following the transition to middle school;  there are only insignificant differences in effects for students of different ethnicities in reading.

Principal surveys indicate that aspects of school climate, such as safety and order, are worse in Florida middle schools than in K-8 schools. The authors surmise that students in grades 6-8 who remain in K-8 schools “may benefit from being among the oldest students in a school setting that includes very young students, perhaps because they have greater opportunity to take on leadership roles.”

About the Authors

Martin R. West is assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and deputy director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Guido Schwerdt is a postdoctoral fellow at PEPG and a researcher at the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Munich, Germany.  The authors are available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

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For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976,, or visit



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