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What does research say about the pros and cons of K–8 school configuration models?

February 2019

Following an established REL Northeast & Islands research protocol, we conducted a search for recent research on the pros and cons of K–8 school configurations. We focused on identifying resources that specifically addressed research on the positive and negative effects of K–8 school configurations and relationships between K–8 school configurations and school and student outcomes. The sources searched included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, academic research databases, and general Internet search engines (For details, please see the methods section at the end of this memo.)

We have not evaluated the quality of references and the resources provided in this response and we offer them only for your reference. Because our search for references is based on the most commonly used resources of research, it is not comprehensive and other relevant references and resources may exist.

Research References

  1. Clark, D. M., Slate, J. R., Combs, J. P., & Moore, G. W. (2013). Math and Reading Differences between 6-8 and K–8 Grade Span Configurations: A Multiyear, Statewide Analysis. Current Issues in Education, 16(2), 1-16.; full text available at
    From the abstract: "We analyzed the effect of grade span configurations (i.e., 6-8 versus K–8) on reading and math performance in Texas public schools for the last 5 school years. Participants in this study were 628 Texas schools (i.e., 314 middle schools and 314 K–8 schools) distributed across the 5 school years examined. Schools configured as K–8 schools were matched to middle schools using a rigorous distance-based formula. All 15 reading comparisons (i.e., grade level by school year) yielded statistically significant results, with effect sizes ranging from small to large. Eleven of the 15 math comparisons yielded statistically significant results, with all of the effect sizes being small. Regardless of student grade level or school year examined, students who were enrolled in K–8 schools had higher average passing rates on the TAKS Reading and Math assessments than did students enrolled in middle schools. Implications of our findings are discussed."
  2. Coladarci, T., & Hancock, J. (2002). The (Limited) Evidence Regarding Effects of Grade-Span Configurations on Academic Achievement: What Rural Educators Should Know. ERIC Digest.
    From the abstract: “Grade-span configuration refers to the range of grades within a school. Grade span is an important issue to various factions in public education, including advocates of middle schools and rural educators concerned with the association between grade fragmentation and school consolidation. This digest focuses on research that has examined the relationship between grade span and student achievement. While many case studies of grade-span effects in particular schools exist, little research has been done using techniques to control for confounding factors. Five studies using such techniques are briefly described. These used data from 18 New York City schools, 700 rural Louisiana schools, 1,001 Texas schools, 163 rural Maine schools, and 330 Pennsylvania schools. In general, the studies suggest that achievement in the middle grades is higher in schools having an elementary-wide configuration than in those with a middle-grades configuration. In a K–8 configuration, absence of school-to-school transitions and greater continuity of experience may contribute to higher achievement. However, only one of the studies considered the instructional or interpersonal dimensions of school life. Further research is needed to disentangle the effects of grade span from those of its corollaries.”
  3. Dove, M. J., Pearson, L. C., & Hooper, H. (2010). Relationship between Grade Span Configuration and Academic Achievement. Journal of Advanced Academics, 21(2), 272-298.
    From the abstract: “The relationship between grade span configuration and academic achievement of 6th-grade students as measured by the Arkansas Benchmark Examination, which is the approved NCLB criterion-referenced annual assessment, was examined. The results of a one-between two-within analysis of variance for the 3-year state-wide study of 6th graders' combined population scores revealed no statistically significant difference for grade span configuration and the interaction of grade span configuration and year, but statistically significant differences were found over the 3 years for both mathematics and literacy percent scores.”
  4. Kim, H. Y., Schwartz, K., Cappella, E., & Seidman, E. (2014). Navigating Middle Grades: Role of School Context in Students' Social Adaptation and Experiences. Society for Research on Educational Effectiveness.
    From the 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. Tables and figures are appended.”
  5. Rockoff, J. E. (2010). Stuck in the Middle: Impacts of Grade Configuration in Public Schools. Journal of Public Economics, 94(11), 1051-1061.
    From the abstract: “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.”


Keywords and Search Strings

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

K–8 school configuration

K–8 school + “benefits”

K–8 grade span + effects

K–8 school model

K–8 “grade span configuration” + student achievement

Databases and Resources

We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of over 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences. 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 for last 12 years, from 2007 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 and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, academic databases, including WWC, ERIC, and NCEE.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references: (a) study types – randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, policy briefs, etc., generally in this order; (b) target population, samples (representativeness of the target population, sample size, volunteered or randomly selected, etc.), study duration, etc.; (c) limitations, generalizability of the findings and conclusions, etc.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educational stakeholders in the Northeast & Islands Region (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, US Virgin Islands, and Vermont), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast & Islands at Education Development Center. This memorandum was prepared by REL Northeast & Islands under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-17-C-0008, administered by Education Development Center. 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.