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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

February 2017


What does the research say about the effects of varying secondary school grade level configurations on student outcomes?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies, and policy briefs on grade level configurations. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to the effects of varying configurations at the secondary level. For details on the databases and sources, key words and selection criteria used to create this response, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.

Below, we share a sampling of the publicly accessible resources on this topic. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. We have not evaluated the quality of references and resources provided in this response, but offer this list to you for your information only.

Research References

Bedard, K., & Do, C. (2005). Are middle schools more effective? The impact of school structure on student outcomes. The Journal of Human Resources, 40(3), 660–682.

From the abstract: "While nearly half of all school districts have adopted middle schools, there is little quantitative evidence of the efficacy of this educational structure. We estimate the impact of moving from a junior high school system, where students stay in elementary school longer, to a middle school system for on-time high school completion. This is a particularly good outcome measure because middle school advocates argued that this new system would be especially helpful for lower achieving students. In contrast to the stated objective, we find that moving to a middle school system decreases on-time high school completion by approximately 1–3 percent."

Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. It make be found through university or public library systems.

Carolan, B. V., Weiss, C. C., & Matthews, J. S. (2015). Which middle school model works best?
Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. Youth& Society, 47(5), 591– 614. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "There are few areas of school organization that reflect more dissatisfaction than how to structure the education of adolescents in the middle grades. This study uses multilevel models on nationally representative data provided by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to investigate the relationship between schools’ middle-level grade span and students’ math achievement. Classroom quality was considered as an explanation for any relationships between grade span and achievement. Also examined was whether gender and family structure moderated this relationship. Results indicate that there is no generalizable relationship between grade span configuration and math achievement, but that measures of classroom quality predicted math achievement. The results should give reflective pause to reformers considering whole-scale changes to the ways in which grade spans are organized and sharpen the policy focus on classroom quality."
Note: REL Midwest was unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this resource. It make be found through university or public library systems.

Renchler, R. (2002). School organization: Grade span. Eugene, OR: Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "This paper examines grade spans (grade configurations) and their importance in community school systems. Research has shown that geographic location often dictates the kind of grade configuration districts use. Furthermore, every grade configuration has strengths and weaknesses, and school officials must focus on developing the positive potential within any given grade span. However, knowing which aspects to enhance can be difficult. The sheer number of variables that come into play when measuring grade-span effectiveness complicates efforts to understand this important component of education. For example, in one of the few empirical studies on grade span, researchers found that 8th-graders in elementary settings (K-8, K-9, 3-8) outperformed 8th-graders in other grade configurations. But the question as to why they learned better remains unanswered. Many current grade configurations can be traced to historical developments, such as passage of child-labor laws, meaning that such configurations had little to do with educational efficacy. Research shows that grade span can work in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to affect student learning. One study found that students suffer achievement loss during transition years and that students who transitioned to high school in grade 7 were less likely to drop out than students who began high school in grades 9 or 10."

Schwerdt, G., & West, M. R. (2011). The impact of alternative grade configurations on student outcomes through middle and high school. Cambridge, MA: Program on Education Policy and Governance. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "We use statewide administrative data from Florida to estimate the impact of attending public schools with different grade configurations on student achievement through grade 10. To identify the causal effect of structural school transitions, we use student fixed effects and instrument for middle and high school attendance based on the terminal grade of the school attended in grades 3 and 6, respectively. Consistent with recent evidence from other settings, we find that students moving from elementary to middle school in grade 6 or 7 suffer a sharp drop in student achievement in the transition year. We confirm that these achievement drops occur in nonurban areas and persist through grade 10, by which time most students have transitioned into high school. We also find that middle school entry increases student absences and is associated with higher grade 10 dropout rates. Transitions to high school in grade nine cause a smaller one-time drop in achievement but do not alter students’ performance trajectories."

Styron, R. A. (2010). Improving student achievement: Can 9th grade academies make a difference? International Journal of Education Policy & Leadership, 5(3), 1-9. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "This study focused on student achievement in ninth grade schools or academies compared to ninth grade students enrolled in traditional high schools. Student achievement was measured by standardized test scores. Other variables tested were gender and ethnicity. All students used in this study were enrolled in the ninth grade during the 2005-2006 school year at one of six schools selected for this research. Participants were enrolled in Algebra I and/or Biology I course(s) and therefore took the standardized Subject Area Test (SAT) in these disciplines. Data indicated students enrolled in ninth grade academies scored significantly higher than ninth graders enrolled in traditional high schools on both the Algebra I and Biology I test. Further analysis of data revealed significant differences based on ethnicity in achievement of Biology I students in the ninth grade academies when compared to the Biology I students in the traditional high schools. The African American students in the ninth grade academies had a higher mean score on the Biology I SAT than Caucasian and African American students enrolled in the traditional high schools. Additionally, the Caucasian students in the ninth grade academies scored only .03 higher than the mean score of African American students in the ninth grade academies."

West, J., Miller, M., Myers, J., & Norton, T. (2015). The relationship of grade span in 9th grade to math achievement in high school. Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research, 5(2), 64–81. Retrieved from

From the abstract: "The purpose of this study was to determine if a correlation exists between grade span for ninth grade and gains in math achievement test scores in 10th grade and 12th grade. A quantitative, longitudinal, correlational research design was employed to investigate the research questions. The population was high school students in the United States from public and private schools who were in the ninth grade for the first time during the 1989–1990 school year. The data collection instrument was the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88). Further sampling and data analysis was conducted through SPSS and hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) software programs. A three-level, repeated-observations, HLM model was employed. The first level included scores and data collected over time nested within students. The second level included within schools data. Data were compared between schools for the third level of the full model…. This study confirmed the significance of race, socioeconomic status, math courses taken, math credits earned, different rates of growth in mathematics, and school level factors that affect individual student math performance. School level factors also contributed to student learning at a significant level. Although this study did not identify a correlation between grade span and math achievement, it may have provided other researchers and practitioners’ recommendations that will guide practice and further research. This study also indicated the need, based on the unexplained variance, to identify additional factors that may contribute to improvement in learning for students."

Wren, S. D. (2003). The effect of grade span configuration and school-to-school transition on student achievement. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University. Retrieved from

From the abstract "The effect of grade span configuration (grouping of grades in schools) and school-to-school transition on student achievement was investigated. The Michigan Education Assessment Program test was used to collect data on the passing rate of students in 232 schools in a large urban inner city school district in the Midwest. The results indicate that grade span configuration and school-to-school transition had significant positive and negative effects on student achievement respectively. The paper discusses implications for school districts."


Keywords and Search Strings

The following keywords and search strings were used to search the reference databases and other sources:

  • "Grade band" OR "Grade configuration" OR "Grade span"

  • Secondary "grade band"

  • Secondary "grade configuration"

  • Secondary "grade span"

  • "high school" "grade band"

  • "High school" "grade configuration"

  • "High school" "grade span"

  • "grade span configuration"

  • "School organization" middle

  • "school organization" junior high

  • "school organization" high school

  • Varying secondary school grade level configurations Descriptor: secondary school students

Databases and Search Engines

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar.

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

  • Date of the publication: References and resources published over the last 15 years, from 2002 to present, were include in the search and review.

  • Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority is given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations.

  • Methodology: We used the following methodological priorities/considerations in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types—randomized control trials, quasi-experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, and so forth, generally in this order, (b) target population, samples (e.g., representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected), study duration, and so forth, and (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, and so forth.
This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Midwest Region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL Region) at American Institutes for Research. This memorandum was prepared by REL Midwest under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0007, administered by American Institutes for Research. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.