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REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

July 2018


What does the research say about the relationship between middle school configurations (grades 5–8 or grades 6–8) and social-emotional development in comparison to a K–8 configuration?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports and descriptive studies on the relationship between middle school configurations and social emotional development in comparison to a K–8 configuration. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to a grades 5–8 configuration and a grades 6–8 configuration. For details on the databases and sources, keywords, 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. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The search conducted is not comprehensive; other relevant references and resources may exist. For each reference, we provide an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the study’s author or publisher. We have not evaluated the quality of these references, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Carolan, B. V., & Chesky, N. Z. (2012). The relationship among grade configuration, school attachment, and achievement. Middle School Journal, 43(4), 32–39. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Many school districts have turned attention to school grade configuration as a way to ease student transitions and improve academic performance, however the research base supporting such reforms is limited. Little attention has been given to how and to what degree school attachment influences the relationship between schools’ middle level grade configuration and student achievement. This multilevel, quantitative study used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K) to investigate school attachment and its relationship to grade configuration and achievement. The authors found that school attachment predicts a significant degree of change in student achievement and call for reformers to be cautious about seeking to improve student outcomes through such structural changes as new grade configurations (i.e. K-8).”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Cook, P. J., MacCoun, R., Muschkin, C., & Vigdor, J. (2008). The negative impacts of starting middle school in sixth grade. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 27(1), 104–121. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Using administrative data on public school students in North Carolina, we find that sixth grade students attending middle schools are much more likely to be cited for discipline problems than those attending elementary school. That difference remains after adjusting for the socioeconomic and demographic characteristics of the students and their schools. Furthermore, the higher infraction rates recorded by sixth graders who are placed in middle school persist at least through ninth grade. An analysis of end-of-grade test scores provides complementary findings. A plausible explanation is that sixth graders are at an especially impressionable age; in middle school, the exposure to older peers and the relative freedom from supervision have deleterious consequences. These findings are relevant to the current debate over the best school configuration for incorporating the middle grades. Based on our results, we suggest that there is a strong argument for separating sixth graders from older adolescents.”

Gunter, W. D., & Bakken, N. W. (2010). Transitioning to middle school in the sixth grade: A hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) analysis of substance use, violence, and suicidal thoughts. Journal of Early Adolescence, 30(6), 895–915. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In recent years, public schools have moved away from traditional grade configurations with junior high schools and have shifted toward integrating sixth-grade students into middle schools. It has been argued that the effect this will have on students is to allow for additional freedom and earlier social growth. However, the counterargument to this debate is that these sixth-grade students would then be exposed to an older cohort sooner and, therefore, would be exposed to negative peer influences. This study investigates the behavioral differences between sixth-grade students in elementary schools and their counterparts in middle schools, including suicidal thoughts, violence, and substance abuse. The data used come from the 2007 middle school Delaware Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Results indicate significant differences in suicidal thoughts or actions based on the grade configuration of school they attend, though not in violence or substance use.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

Hough, D. L. (2009). Findings from the first & only national data base on elemiddle & middle schools. Middle Grades Research Journal, 4(3), 81–96. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The study presented here is the first large scale effort on a national level to examine the relationship between K-8 Elemiddle Schools and 6-8 Middle Schools. From a population of more than 2,000 middle grades schools in 49 public school districts across 26 states, a sample of 542 Elemiddle and 506 Middle Schools was drawn. Both regression and discriminant analysis techniques were used to examine relationships, describe student and school characteristics, and predict outcomes. While students attending K-8 Elemiddle Schools were more likely to be of minority status, live in poverty, and attend an inner city or urban school; they were also more likely to have higher rates of attendance, fewer behavior referrals, and higher academic achievement than their 6-8 Middle School counterparts.”

Kim, H. Y., Schwartz, K., Cappella, E., & Seidman, E. (2014). Navigating middle grades: Role of school context in students’ social adaptation and experiences. Paper presented at the Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness Conference, Washington, DC. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Informed by the current literature, this study examines social contexts across middle grade schools with different grade span configurations. In doing so, the authors aim to build understanding of where and how to target interventions in the middle grades to enhance maintenance of social-emotional adjustment and experiences from middle childhood to early adolescence. Specifically, utilizing a large national dataset—the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-1999 (ECLS-K)—the authors: (1) describe the factor structure of the middle grade school social context as reported by administrators and teachers; (2) examine variation in social context among middle grade schools with different grade span configurations (k-8 schools; 6-8 middle schools; 7-9 junior high schools), controlling for school demographic and structural characteristics; and (3) test the role of middle grade school social context in the associations between school grade span configuration and student social adaptation and experiences (school attachment, perceived peer support, peer academic values). Results showed this study identified school social context as a potentially critical avenue of intervention toward supporting students’ social and academic development in the middle grades.”

Malone, M., Cornell, D., & Shukla, K. (2017). Association of grade configuration with school climate for 7th and 8th grade students. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(3), 350–366. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Educational authorities have questioned whether middle schools provide the best school climate for 7th and 8th grade students, and proposed that other grade configurations such as K-8th grade schools may provide a better learning environment. The purpose of this study was to compare 7th and 8th grade students’ perceptions of 4 key features of school climate (disciplinary structure, student support, student engagement, and prevalence of teasing and bullying) in middle schools versus elementary or high schools. Multilevel multivariate modeling in a statewide sample of 39,036 7th and 8th grade students attending 418 schools revealed that students attending middle schools had a more negative perception of school climate than students in schools with other grade configurations. Seventh grade students placed in middle schools reported lower disciplinary structure and a higher prevalence of teasing and bullying in comparison to those in elementary schools. Eighth grade students in middle schools reported poorer disciplinary structure, lower student engagement, and a higher prevalence of teasing and bullying compared to those in high schools. These findings can guide school psychologists in identifying aspects of school climate that may be troublesome for 7th and 8th grade students in schools with different grade configurations.”

McEwin, C. K., Dickinson, T. S., & Jacobson, M. G. (2005). How effective are K-8 schools for young adolescents? Middle School Journal, 37(1), 24–28. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The history of young adolescent education can be viewed as an ongoing search for the appropriate combination of school organization, curriculum, and instructional practices for young adolescents. While middle schools have now become the most common pattern for schools housing young adolescents, there have always been other broader school configurations, such as K-12 and 7-12, serving these young people. Recently, attention has turned to another broad school configuration, the K-8 school. This renewed interest on the part of some school districts in this historically popular grade organization prompted the authors to conduct the study reported in this article. This study made it possible to compare the implementation of programs and practices normally found in middle schools with the implementation of those programs and practices in K-8 schools. The status data on middle school programs and practices, except when other sources are identified, are derived from the study of 746 public middle schools with grade configurations of 5-8, 6-8, or 7-8. The current study was not designed to prove one school configuration as better than another but rather to collect and analyze objective information about how young adolescents experience school in elementary schools and separate middle schools. However, the two school configurations explored—one designed for young children and the other for young adolescents—differ in many ways that inevitably affect the schooling experienced by the students that attend them. It would be shortsighted, at best, to believe that the grade configuration of a school does not affect programs and practices. One might say that grade configuration per se may not make ‘the difference,’ but it does make ‘a difference.’ Results from this study support that conclusion.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.

National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. (2008). Policy statement on grade configuration (Issue 5). Savoy, IL: Author. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “In recent years, several large urban districts, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, and Kansas City, Missouri have converted their middle schools (generally grades 6-8) to K-8 schools in the hope of improving student achievement, attendance, and behavior, while also enhancing parental involvement. The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform, which supports all bona fide efforts to improve schooling for young adolescents (ages 10-14), recommends that such efforts be grounded in evidence-based research. Current research on grade configuration, however, is not definitive. More evidence is needed to document the positive outcomes achieved by 6-8 and K-8 schools on young adolescents, as well as by other organizational structures. The National Forum believes that what is most important for the education of young adolescent learners is what takes place inside each middle-grades school, not grade configuration per se. The National Forum has put forth a comprehensive policy agenda for middle-grades education designed to bring about positive and lasting school improvement. This paper summarizes the history and research surrounding grade configuration, along with the Forum’s own experiences in identifying high-performing schools that serve young adolescents. These suggest that focusing on changing grade configuration as the solution to middle-grades problems and challenges may not achieve the intended results.”

Weiss, C. C., & Kipnes, L. (2006). Reexamining middle school effects: A comparison of middle grades students in middle schools and K–8 schools. American Journal of Education, 112(2), 239–272. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “The period of the middle grades has seen numerous reforms to improve education for students in early adolescence. However, although several current reforms seek to overhaul middle schools, only a handful of studies have directly compared the effects of different configurations of grades. Our analysis uses district and student data from one of the few American urban districts that contain both middle schools and K-8 schools. We compare student outcomes in eighth grade, finding few differences by school type. Only self-esteem and perceived threat differ by type of eighth-grade school. We also show that students’ self-esteem benefits academic outcomes, a benefit that primarily accrues to students in middle schools.”

Note: REL Midwest tries to provide publicly available resources whenever possible. Although we were unable to locate a link to the full-text version of this article, we determined that it might be of interest to you. The resource may be available through university or public library systems.


Keywords and Search Strings

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

  • “grade configuration” 5-8

  • descriptor: “grouping (Instructional Purposes)” descriptor: “middle schools”

  • “middle school” “grade band”

  • “middle school” “grade configuration”

  • descriptor: “middle schools” 5-8

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 IES and 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 Midwest) 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.