Achievement declines when students change schools

Entering middle school or high school is a big change for students. Past research has revealed that such transitions generally cause students’ achievement to drop, at least temporarily. During the elementary years, most students have a single teacher for the entire day, and elementary work tends to be task-oriented.

At middle school and high school, however, students tend to have at least four different teachers and often change classrooms every 45 minutes. Since teachers at the upper levels have so many students for short periods of time, the nature of the student-teacher relationship changes radically. There tends to be more whole-class instruction rather than small-group or individual instruction and the focus is on performance.

Achievement declines in reading, math, science and social studies occur whether the transition is made at grade 5, 6, 7 or 8. But student achievement scores tend to recover to their pre-transition levels in the year following the transition.

In a recent study, Joseph W. Alspaugh, University of Missouri, investigated the relationship between the size and organization of school districts, achievement loss and high school dropout rates. Alspaugh studied the ages of students when they made these transitions and the composition of the schools they attend. He followed students in 48 mostly rural districts.

In 16 of the school districts, students stayed in elementary school from kindergarten through the eighth grade and then moved on to high school. Another group of 16 districts consisted of only one elementary school, one middle school and one high school apiece. The last group of 16 districts had several elementary schools feeding into one middle school and one high school. Middle schools in these last two groups consisted of sixth through eighth grades.

Academic performance and school transitions

The Missouri Mastery and Achievement Test was given to all students in May of each year to measure their achievement in the core subjects of math, reading, science, and social studies. In this study, the difference in the three groups’ performance was significant. Relative to the state average, both groups of districts with middle schools showed an achievement decline the year children entered middle school. But only the districts that had several elementary
schools feeding into one large middle school experienced a statistically significant
decline.

All the students in this study made the transition to high school after eighth grade. Although the difference among the three groups at this level was not statistically significant, students entering from middle schools experienced a greater achievement loss than did students making the transition from a K-8 elementary school. The size of the schools was also a factor in achievement: the bigger the school, the greater the decline in achievement associated with
the transition.

Poverty, too, was strongly influential: the poorer the district as indicated by higher rates of
free or reduced-price lunch, the lower the achievement.

High school dropout rates

Alspaugh calculated the dropout rates as the average number of students in grades 9-12 who dropped out over a five-year period. He found a statistically significant difference among the average dropout rates for the three groups of districts in this study. Districts with middle schools had a higher dropout rate.

School size and poverty level also influenced dropout rates. Previous research had concluded that the most important factor associated with high school dropout rates is poverty. In this study, as school size increased, poverty became a more critical factor in dropout rates. Smaller schools appeared able to mitigate the effects of poverty on student performance.

Middle school transition

Students who attend middle school at sixth grade tend to experience a temporary drop in
achievement scores not seen in students who stay in elementary school through eighth grade. Students who transfer to larger middle schools with students from other elementary schools appear to have a greater decline in their achievement.

Alspaugh reports that he does not know if the middle schools in the study followed recommended strategies for helping students adjust to the transition.

Students entering high school show a greater achievement loss from middle school, indicating that they have a double disadvantage compared to students who attend K-8 elementary schools and transfer only once without much loss in achievement. This is reflected in increased high school dropout rates for those who attended middle schools and experienced transitions at both grade 6 and grade 9.

Students in larger school districts experienced more transitions because larger districts had middle schools. Overall, Alspaugh concludes that students placed in smaller schools for a
longer period of time tend to have more positive educational outcomes.


“Achievement Loss Associated with the Transition to Middle School and High School,” The Journal of Educational Research Volume 92, Number 1, October 1998, pp. 20-26.

Published in ERN November 1998 Volume 11 Number 8

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