For students who were high fliers in their small elementary schools, the move to a middle school—with frequent class changes and larger class sizes—can be a rude awakening. That may explain why a new study in the Journal of Early Adolescence finds some students in middle schools take a hit to their self-esteem in reading in comparison to those at K-8 schools.
Fortunately, the grade span didn’t necessarily affect their achievement in the subject, it found.
More than 9 in 10 American middle-grades students attend a school structured as either “middle school,” covering grades 6 to 8, or “junior high,” covering grades 7 to 9. But in recent years multiple studies have questioned the shorter grade-span structure, arguing that in comparison to students at K-8 or K-12 schools, students at middle schools face higher rates of bullying and absenteeism, and lower grades. In general, prior research has suggested that students are more likely to struggle the more times they have to transition to a new school.
Elise Cappella, an associate professor of applied psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt school of education, and her colleagues analyzed information on more than 5,700 8th-grade students in a federal longitudinal study who had attended K-8, 6-8, and 7-9 schools. The researchers compared the students’ reading and math achievement, as well as their attachment to school, peer values and support, and both their own and their teachers’ confidence in their reading and math abilities.
After controlling for students’ previous achievement and school climate, Cappella found students attending middle schools had academic achievement and school engagement on par with students from K-8 schools; middle school students lagged only in their own and their teachers’ confidence in their reading and writing abilities.
“There is a robust, clear impact on reading self-concept, sense of their own competence as readers and writers. ... But we don’t detect strong, robust impacts on academic achievement indicators via test scores and teacher-observation reports,” Cappella said.
“It means the answer is not simply to create more K-8 or K-12 schools. That’s not the answer. The answer is to make sure the environments the kids are in, regardless of the grade span as a whole, are healthy and promotive of academic and social-emotional outcomes,” she said.
Moreover, the researchers found that that drop in confidence occurred only for students who were not in poverty and not low performing in kindergarten. Students who had been previously lower-performing or from families in poverty had lower achievement in 8th grade than their wealthier and higher-performing peers, but they did not take as big a hit to their self-confidence during the transition to middle school. They suggested that K-8 schools, which tend to have smaller enrollments in each grade than middle and junior high schools, may feel more similar to elementary schools.
“Kids who are less disadvantaged economically may be coming from a more positive social environment [in elementary school], so the transition was harder because it was a bigger difference from their old school,” Cappella said.
For more at-risk students, though, “we think that going to a new school in middle school may give kids an opportunity to start fresh ... and think of themselves in a new way.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.