Middle Schools May Lower Student Scores

Payson’s school reorganization plan flies in the face of national trends and mounting evidence

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A Payson Unified School District plan to close an elementary school, but keep its single middle school flies in the face of a national trend and studies showing that K-8 schools seem to offer students big social and academic advantages.

The Payson Unified School District board this month will consider a recommendation by a study committee to close Frontier Elementary School and shuffle school attendance boundaries to create one K-2 school and one K-5 school, with much larger average class sizes.

The School Configuration Committee considered closing Frontier and then converting the middle school into one of three K-8 schools as an alternative, but rejected that idea.

The committee argued that shifting to K-8 schools would create too many mixed-grade classrooms, reduce collaboration and strain the school bus network. In addition, the committee concluded the two elementary schools would lack necessary science labs and gym facilities if converted to K-8 campuses. Moreover, the district might have more trouble offering extra-curricular activities for older students in a K-8 system.

However, some research suggests that student test scores plunge when students enter middle school. Most of the rigorous studies comparing K-8 schools to middle schools in the same districts have found that students in K-8 schools have much higher math and reading scores, lower absentee rates and higher ultimate high school graduation rates.

Surveys of parents and students have found much higher levels of dissatisfaction with middle schools compared to K-8 schools.

Most of the studies have documented significant advantages in K-8 schools. However, some cautionary studies suggest the big achievement advantages of K-8 schools documented in many studies may actually reflect systematic differences in the average size of the schools and the demographic makeup of students in K-8 schools, with fewer minority and low-income students on average.

Payson’s proposed school reorganization plan would disregard most of those studies. The creation of K-2 and K-5 schools would require a student to change campuses four times through high school, instead of twice in a K-8 system.

Moreover, a shift to a K-8 system would result in much smaller groups of 7th- and 8th-graders at each of three campuses, which several of the existing national studies suggest accounts for much of the advantage of K-8 schools.

The number of studies documenting the K-8 advantages has prompted many districts nationally to abandon the middle school structure that spread widely in the past 40 years to return to the once dominant K-8 structure. Many districts initially shifted to middle schools based on arguments that team teaching, paying attention to issues like social relationships, individualized learning styles and self-esteem would yield better results.

The number of middle schools rose from 1,500 to 11,500 nationally between 1979 and 200, but has been falling ever since. Between 1987 and 2007, the number of sixth-graders in middle schools fell from 45 percent of all students to just 20 percent.

Math and reading scores dropped

One of the most influential recent studies focused on the effort of the New York City School District to convert from a mostly middle-school system to a largely K-8 system. Researchers found that math and reading scores dropped sharply as students entered middle school and stayed low for as long as they remained in middle schools.

The plunge hit the weakest students hardest. Both strong and weak students registered significant declines, but the students with the lowest test scores in 5th grade had a 50 to 200 percent greater reduction than the strongest students, according to the study published last year in Education Next, an online journal.

Moreover, the students who went to middle school had higher absentee rates than their K-8 peers. Parents of middle school students rated their schools much lower than parents of K-8 schools in the upper grades. And middle school students said that their schools had less academic rigor, less mature social behavior, provided lower-quality education and were less safe than students in the same grades in K-8 schools.

Researchers tried to control for as many factors as possible, like the number of low-income students, per-student spending and class size. None of those variables seemed to explain the pronounced differences. One change that did seem to have a big impact was the number of students in the same grade at a given school.

For instance, the K-8 schools had about 85 8th-graders in each “cohort.” But the middle schools had an average of about 200 8th-graders in each cohort. The schools with a smaller number of 8th-graders in each cohort did significantly better, independent of other factors.

The researchers speculated that the K-8 schools reaped much of their advantage from reducing the number of times students changed schools and the kinds of social controls and teacher relationships that come from concentrating a smaller number of 7th- and 8th-graders at a single school site.

“Given the data,” concluded researcher Jonah Rockoff, “we can only speculate about why it is harder to educate middle school-aged students in large groups.

“Developmental psychologists have shown that adolescent children commonly exhibit traits such as negativity, low self-esteem and an inability to judge the risks and consequences of their actions, which may make them especially difficult to educate in large groups. The combining of multiple elementary schools and their students also disrupts a student’s immediate peer group.”

Different studies

Other studies have come to similar conclusions.

For instance, four different landmark studies that compared middle schools to K-8 schools all documented test score gains and many found a host of other advantages as well.

Those advantages included a greater sense of community, stronger relationships between teachers and parents, less travel time for students, fewer destabilizing school transitions, a longer period when students from the same family can attend the same school, a reduction in drop-out rates, lower teacher turnover rates, a higher percentage of veteran and credentialed teachers in K-8 systems, better student performance in terms of emotional and social outcomes and self-esteem, reduced rates of bullying and improved attitudes toward school and sharp reductions in the performance gap between students.

However, one other recent, massive study sounded a cautionary note, after a multi-year study of the effects of shifting from middle schools to a K-8 model in the huge Philadelphia City School District.

Most of the sizeable advantages for K-8 schools over middle schools had to do mainly with differences in student demographics and to a lesser extent with the number of 7th- or 8th-graders at each campus, according to a complex analysis by Johns Hopkins University researchers Vaughn Byrnes and Allen Ruby, published in the American Journal of Education. The five-year study involved 41,000 students in 95 schools, including 14 newly created K-8 schools.

The researchers discovered that students in long-established K-8 schools did indeed perform much better academically than students in the district’s established middle schools. However, the students in 14 newly created K-8 schools didn’t enjoy nearly as many advantages, when compared to students still enrolled in the district’s dwindling number of middle schools.

The researchers concluded that the new K-8 as well as the existing middle schools had more low-income and minority students than the existing K-8 schools.

Once the researchers controlled for the differences in student populations, the advantages of K-8 schools shrank noticeably — at least the advantages measured by student performance on standardized test scores. The well-documented advantages of smaller school sizes and smaller grade cohorts accounted for much of the remaining advantages of the K-8 schools, in their statistical analysis.

Keeping teachers

The study did find that the K-8 schools had advantages in teacher turnover, credentialing and retention — but that this difference didn’t account for the academic advantages of K-8 schools.

The researchers concluded by cautioning school officials not to treat the conversion to K-8 schools as a reformer’s “magic bullet” that would automatically raise test scores.

Still, even that cautionary study found that reducing the number of 7th- and 8th-graders at a given campus resulted in an increase in test scores, regardless of student demographics.

The Payson Unified School District board will hold a hearing on the Configuration Committee’s report in January.

A month after that hearing, the board could then act on the committee’s recommendation and order the closure and mothballing of Frontier Elementary School after the school year ends in June.

The configuration committee’s study suggested that closing one campus would save about $300,000 in administrative, utilities and maintenance costs. Staff reductions totaling about 11 teachers would save another $548,000 — but require a big increase in average class size. That recommendation also runs counter to masses of studies suggesting that keeping class sizes below 18 in the early elementary school grades boosts test scores substantially.

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