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The relationship between middle school grade configuration and academic performance — April 2015


What does research say about the association between middle school grade configuration and academic performance, particularly how 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students at K–8 schools perform compared to students at 6–8 schools?


We have prepared the following memo with references on middle school grade configuration and academic achievement. Citations include a link to a free online version, when available. All citations are accompanied by an abstract, excerpt, or summary written by the author or publisher of the document. We have not done an evaluation of the methodological rigor of these resources, but provide them for your information only.

Research References

Byrnes, V., & Ruby, A. (2007). Comparing achievement between K–8 & middle schools: A large scale empirical study. Baltimore, MD: Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University. Retrieved from

Abstract: This paper reports on a natural experiment in the Philadelphia School District. It compares Middle Schools to established K–8 schools, as well as to newly formed K–8 schools that are part of the district’s K–8 conversion policy, in order to determine if the different school structures have an effect on student academic achievement. The outcome is students’ 8th grade mathematics achievement and our sample includes 40,883 8th grade students taken from 95 schools across 5 cohorts from the 1999–2000 to the 2003–04 school years. The analysis uses multi-level modeling to account for differences between student, cohort, and school level variation, and includes a large set of statistical controls that include student demographics, teacher characteristics, school transition, and several cohort and school level factors including average school size. The results find that older K–8 schools do perform significantly better than middle schools, and that this advantage is adequately explained by the two school type’s differing student and teacher populations, differences in average grade size, and the extra school transition that middle school students must make from elementary to the middle grades. Newer K–8 schools created as part of the district’s reform efforts outperformed middle schools but not by as much or as significantly as did older K–8 schools, despite having smaller grade sizes and lower rates of school transition. We found that this was likely due to their student populations, which like those of middle schools, consisted primarily of minority students from high-poverty backgrounds. We conclude that while K–8 schools do perform better in terms of student achievement, the advantage exists for several reasons and may not be easily replicated or represent a solution to the problem of low achieving schools and students in large urban public school districts that serve high-minority and low-poverty student populations.

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

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).

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). Retrieved from

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.

Coladarci, T., & Hancock, J. (2002). Grade-span configuration. Journal of Research in Rural Education, 17(3), 189–192. Retrieved from

Abstract: The authors review the limited evidence regarding grade span configuration effects on academic achievement and other outcomes. A small group of studies, where researchers attempted to account for confounding variables, report positive effects for less fragmented grade spans (e.g., grades K–8 vs. 6–8). The meaning and implications of these results are discussed.

Coladarci, T., & Hancock, J. (2003). The (limited) evidence regarding effects of grade-span configurations on academic achievement: What rural educators should know. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. Retrieved from

Excerpt: Our focus is on the relationship between grade span and “academic achievement.” To be sure, there are other considerations that influence decisions regarding the configuration of grades in a school or district, such as those related to fiscal constraints, political tensions, or geographical realities. We do not mean to impugn their importance by not addressing these considerations here. But what ultimately matters—or should matter—to educators, policymakers, business persons, and the general public is how much students learn. This is particularly true in the present era of educational reform in which student performance on standards-aligned achievement assessments has become the veritable bottom line.

Connolly, F., Yakimowski-Srebnick, M. E., & Russo, C. V. (2002). An examination of K–5, 6–8 versus K–8 grade configurations. ERS Spectrum, 20(2), 28–37. Retrieved from

Abstract: Examines differences in certain factors such as student achievement and student attendance in K–8 versus K–5 and 6–8 grade configurations in Baltimore City Public Schools. Finds, for example, that students in K–8 schools had significantly higher reading, language arts, and mathematics scores than did students in K–5 or 6–8 schools.

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. Retrieved from

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. (Contains 3 tables and 4 figures.)

Jacob, B. A., & Rockoff, J. E. (2011). Organizing schools to improve student achievement: Start times, grade configurations, and teacher assignments. Discussion paper. Washington, DC: The Hamilton Project/Brookings. Retrieved from

Abstract: Education reform proposals are often based on high-profile or dramatic policy changes, many of which are expensive, politically controversial, or both. In this paper, we argue that the debates over these “flashy” policies have obscured a potentially important direction for raising student performance—namely, reforms to the management or organization of schools. By making sure the “trains run on time” and focusing on the day-to-day decisions involved in managing the instructional process, school and district administrators may be able to substantially increase student learning at modest cost. In this paper, we describe three organizational reforms that recent evidence suggests have the potential to increase K–12 student performance at modest costs: (1) Starting school later in the day for middle and high school students; (2) Shifting from a system with separate elementary and middle schools to one with schools that serve students in kindergarten through grade eight; (3) Managing teacher assignments with an eye toward maximizing student achievement (e.g., allowing teachers to gain experience by teaching the same grade level for multiple years or having teachers specializing in the subject where they appear most effective). We conservatively estimate that the ratio of benefits to costs is 9 to 1 for later school start times and 40 to 1 for middle school reform. A precise benefit-cost calculation is not feasible for the set of teacher assignment reforms we describe, but we argue that the cost of such proposals is likely to be quite small relative to the benefits for students. While we recognize that these specific reforms may not be appropriate or feasible for every district, we encourage school, district, and state education leaders to make the management, organization, and operation of schools a more prominent part of the conversation on how to raise student achievement.

Juvonen, J., Le, V., Kaganoff, T., Augstine, C., & Constant, L. (2004). Focus on the wonder years: Challenges facing the American middle school. Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

Abstract: The RAND Corporation set out to assess the state of American middle schools and identify the schools’ major challenges. The research team collected and synthesized literature that describes pertinent research conducted during the last 20 years. We reviewed the issues that have received substantial attention, as well as those that have not been recognized or discussed. We supplemented the literature review with our own analyses of some of the most recent national and international data. This monograph describes our findings. To assess the effectiveness of middle schools, we focus heavily on middle school students and student outcomes, such as academic achievement. But we also review research on the other key players, including teachers, principals, and parents. We provide context for our analyses by describing the historical changes that have shaped today’s middle schools and the key organizational and instructional practices and multicomponent reforms that U.S. middle schools have adopted in recent years. Finally, we summarize the main challenges identified and discuss future directions for middle-grade education.

Kieffer, M. J. (2013). Development of reading and mathematics skills in early adolescence: Do K–8 public schools make a difference? Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6(4), 361–379. Retrieved from

Abstract: Educators and policymakers are paying increased attention to the academic outcomes of students in the middle grades (i.e., Grades 6–8). One reform proposed to improve outcomes for these students is to replace middle schools (with Grade 6–8, 7–8, or 7–9 configurations) with K–8 schools. This longitudinal study evaluated the effects of continuously attending a K–8 school, rather than transitioning from an elementary school to a middle school, on Grade 8 reading and mathematics achievement. Drawing on nationally representative data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten 1998 cohort (“N” = 8,237), the study used propensity score stratification to control for observable selection bias. Findings indicated that K–8 schools produce small, significant effects for reading (effect size = 0.15 or approximately 6–8 months of schooling), but nonsignificant effects for mathematics. Results were robust to several alternative specifications, including accounting for nesting of children within schools and using different approaches for propensity score matching. Findings provide conditional support for K–8 schools, highlight the need for cost-effectiveness research on this topic, and raise questions about the specific mechanisms for K–8 schools’ advantages.

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

Abstract: 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.

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

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.

Seller, W. (2004). Configuring schools: A review of the literature. Thunder Bay, Ontario: Northwestern Centre, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Retrieved from

Abstract: Configuring schools by grade is a practice influenced by history, psychology, sociology, and pedagogy. With all of these social sciences to draw on for knowledge and direction, configuring schools remains a process with inexact guidelines. This situation exists for a variety of reasons, but primary among them is the complexity of the reasons for considering various combinations of grades in the schools. Even though what is best for the student is central to the decision, administrative issues related to finances, transportation, space usage, and others can affect the final decision. Even ‘the good of the student’ is subject to different interpretations. For example, academic achievement and social development are often cited as primary concerns when discussing grade span for school configurations yet as will be shown below, different patterns of grade span enhance different goals. That is, grade span patterns which appear to support improved student academic achievement are not necessarily the same as those which provide the best social and psychological development of the students. This review of the literature emphasizes the complex nature of the topic and illustrates the conclusions that:

  • there is not a single grade span configuration that will serve all purposes
  • there is not an agreed on ‘best model’
  • current practice is in a state of flux

This underscores the need for clarity regarding why a particular grade span is used and awareness of the limitations of that particular configuration. It also identifies many of the additional potential ramifications of configuring school grade spans in various ways.

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

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.

Weiss, C., & Bearman, P. (2007). Fresh starts: Reinvestigating the effects of the transition to high school on student outcomes. American Journal of Education, 113, 395–422. Retrieved from

Abstract: Seemingly endless tinkering and adjustment of the structure of education in the United States over the past century have led to the adoption of different school forms (grouping particular grades into separate schools) at different times. These different school forms necessitate transitions between schools (e.g., from a middle school to a high school), which, prior research has argued, have detrimental effects on students’ well-being. In this article, we use natural variation in the American educational system to reexamine the effects of school transitions. Contrary to most prior research on the subject, we directly compare the ninth grade outcomes of students who make a transition in moving to ninth grade with those who do not. Our results show that for both academic and nonacademic outcomes, the presence of a transition from eighth grade to ninth grade makes almost no difference for students’ ninth-grade outcomes relative to those of students who do not change schools between those grades. This is not to suggest that outcomes do not change between eighth grade and ninth grade but that the degree of difference is the same for students who change schools as for those who do not. Where differences appear, they are small and point to the bene?ts of school transitions for providing fresh starts to adolescents in socially dif?cult situations.

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

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.

Yakimowski, M. E., & Connolly, F. (2002). An examination of K–5, 6–8 versus K–8 grade configurations. ERS Spectrum, 20(2), 28–37.

Abstract: Examines differences in certain factors such as student achievement and student attendance in K–8 versus K–5 and 6–8 grade configurations in Baltimore City Public Schools. Finds, for example, that students in K–8 schools had significantly higher reading, language arts, and mathematics scores than did students in K–5 or 6–8 schools.

Additional organizations to consult

The American Association of School Administrators

The American Association of School Administrators advocates for the highest quality public education for all students, and develops and supports school system leaders. The American Association of School Administrators, founded in 1865, is the professional organization for more than 13,000 educational leaders in the United States and throughout the world. AASA members range from chief executive officers, superintendents, and senior level school administrators to cabinet members, professors, and aspiring school system leaders. AASA members are the chief education advocates for children. AASA members advance the goals of public education and champion children’s causes in their districts and nationwide. As school system leaders, AASA members set the pace for academic achievement. They help shape policy, oversee its implementation, and represent school districts to the public at large.

This resource provides information on middle school and grade spans, including articles such as “Grade-Span Configurations: Where 6th and 7th Grades are Assigned May Influence Student Achievement, Research Suggests” (

National Middle School Association

Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), formerly National Middle School Association, has been a voice for those committed to the educational and developmental needs of young adolescents. AMLE is the only national education association dedicated exclusively to those in the middle grades. Through the release of our landmark position paper This We Believe, AMLE has been a key resource to middle level educators looking to develop more effective schools. Our message is for schools to be academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable for every young adolescent. In addition to This We Believe, AMLE provides professional development, journals, books, research, and other valuable information to assist educators on an ongoing basis.


Keywords and Search Strings Used in the Search

“Grade configuration” OR “grade span configuration” AND “middle school”; “K–8 and middle school.”

Search of Databases

EBSCO Host, Google, and Google Scholar

Criteria for Inclusion

When REL West staff review resources, they consider—among other things—four factors:

  • Date of the Publication: The most current information is included, except in the case of nationally known seminal resources.
  • Source and Funder of the Report/Study/Brief/Article: Priority is given to IES, nationally funded, and certain other vetted sources known for strict attention to research protocols.
  • Methodology: Sources include randomized controlled trial studies, surveys, self-assessments, literature reviews, and policy briefs. Priority for inclusion generally is given to randomized controlled trial study findings, but the reader should note at least the following factors when basing decisions on these resources: numbers of participants (Just a few? Thousands?); selection (Did the participants volunteer for the study or were they chosen?); representation (Were findings generalized from a homogeneous or a diverse pool of participants? Was the study sample representative of the population as a whole?).
  • Existing Knowledge Base: Although we strive to include vetted resources, there are times when the research base is limited or nonexistent. In these cases, we have included the best resources we could find, which may include newspaper articles, interviews with content specialists, organization websites, and other sources.

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by educators and policymakers in the Western region (Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah), which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) at WestEd. This memorandum was prepared by REL West under a contract with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), Contract ED-IES-12-C-0002, administered by WestEd. 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.