Skip Navigation
archived information
Skip Navigation

Back to Ask A REL Archived Responses

REL Midwest Ask A REL Response

June 2019


What research is available on the relationship between different middle and high school grade configurations (specifically a 7–12 model versus 6–8 and 9–12) and student academic and social-emotional outcomes?


Following an established Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest protocol, we conducted a search for research reports, descriptive studies and literature reviews on the relationship between different middle and high school grade configurations and student academic and social-emotional outcomes. In particular, we focused on identifying resources related to a 7–12 grade configuration versus a more traditional middle (6–8) and high (9–12) school 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

Barton, R., & Klump, J. (2012). Figuring out grade configurations. Principal’s Research Review, 7(3). Retrieved from

From the abstract: “In the May 2012 issue of NASSP’s Principal’s Research Review, the longtime topic of grade configuration is explored. The writers, Rhonda Barton and Jennifer Klump of Education Northwest, zero in on what the research says about organizing students in various elementary, middle level and high school grade spans. They look at studies conducted in New York and Florida, and show an example of a reconfiguration happening in a small district in Idaho. While research suggests that the way grades are configured depends on the needs and conditions of the community, the brief offers a list of important questions districts should consider when looking at reconfiguring grade spans.”

Cappella, E., Schwartz, K., Hill, J., Kim, H. Y., & Seidman, E. (2019). A national sample of eighth-grade students: The impact of middle grade schools on academic and psychosocial competence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 39(2), 167–200. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “This study evaluates the effect of attending a U.S. public middle or junior high school as compared with a K-8 school on eighth graders’ academic and psychosocial outcomes. In a national sample, we conducted propensity score weighted regression analysis. Initial findings indicated that for eighth-grade students, attending a middle or junior high school negatively affected teacher- and self-reported reading/writing competence. After applying population weights, only reading self-concept remained negatively affected by middle school enrollment. Exploratory analysis revealed the negative effects of attending a middle grade school may be present only for the students who enter kindergarten not at risk as measured by socioeconomic status (SES) or academic performance. Taken together, results suggest that negative impacts of middle grade schooling may be limited to teacher- and self-reported reading/writing competence, more pronounced in middle versus junior high school, and more salient for less disadvantaged students. Implications for theory, policy, and practice are discussed.”

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

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.”

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

Schmitt, V. L. (2004). The relationship between middle level grade span configuration, professional development, and student achievement. RMLE Online, 27(2), 1–13. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “One goal of professional development is to improve student achievement through improved teacher practice. The middle school philosophy, which supports the rationale that student learning is inextricably interwoven into the fabric of an active learning environment, contains many promising practices that ‘mirror’ what is often considered to be high quality professional development. However, researchers’ efforts to identify and measure this relationship have proven difficult at best. In this study, levels of professional development as components of various school reform initiatives are identified, and their relationships to student learning are measured across various grade configurations, specifically, K-8, 6-8, and 7-12. This study found a significant percent of 6-8 middle level schools to be more highly engaged in professional development activities than their K-8 and 7-12 counterparts. However, when taken together, professional development and grade configuration were not found to have a direct relationship to student achievement. Some variance in state assessment scores, albeit not statistically significant, was found to be marginally related to grade configuration, indicating the need for further study. This finding, coupled with other analyses of the data, suggest that relationships among professional development, grade configuration, and student achievement may exist but cannot be fully explained until researchers are able to identify and account for other variables that may be related to the unexplained variance. Until empirical evidence is produced, policymakers are encouraged to continue discussions regarding the most appropriate means of addressing young adolescents’ academic needs regardless of other factors.”

Schwerdt, G., & West, M. R. (2011). The impact of alternative grade configurations on student outcomes through middle and high school (Working Papers Series, PEPG 11-02). Cambridge, MA: Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University. Retrieved from

From the ERIC 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.”

Williamson, R. (2012). Grade configuration. Fairfield, CT: Education Partnerships. Retrieved from

From the ERIC abstract: “Where to locate the 7th and 8th grade is a perennial question. While there are many variations, three approaches are most often used—include them in a 7-12 secondary campus, maintain a separate middle grades campus, or include them as part of a K-8 program. Research says that grade configuration is inconclusive at best and there is no research that shows one configuration is better at improving student learning. There is some evidence that each of the three approaches can positively, or negatively impact students. But reorganizing grades is merely a shifting of students, teachers and programs from one site to another. Research shows that there is greater impact on student learning when the emphasis is not on location of the students but on the educational experience students receive. Grade configuration is merely a tool that can create the potential to improve student learning. This paper provides a brief summary of what the research says.”


Keywords and Search Strings

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

  • “Grade configuration” 7-12

  • “Grade configuration” “grade 7”

  • “Grade configuration” “grade 8”

  • “Grade configuration” “middle schools”

  • “Grade configuration” “junior highs”

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

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 2004 to present, were included 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.