What does the research say about K-8 schools?

  • Research reports that K-8 schools have higher achievement rates, as well as better attendance rates, and lower behavior infractions during middle school years. These are lasting achievement outcomes that increase the trajectory of students through high school. In comparison, middle schools have lower achievement rates after students enter middle school, and these students who attended middle schools are not making up the difference from this dip in achievement later in high school. 

    • This study reports on findings that the transition into a middle school is linked to lower academic achievement when compared to students who do not make that transition. Study Links Academic Setbacks to Middle School Transition
    • Authors in this study found that in the specific year when students move to a middle school (or to a junior high), their academic achievement, as measured by standardized tests, falls substantially in both math and English relative to that of their counterparts who continue to attend a K–8 elementary school. What’s more, their achievement continues to decline throughout middle school. This negative effect persists at least through 8th grade.  Stuck: How and Why Middle Schools Harm Student Achievement

    • This study finds that moving from elementary to middle school in grade 6 or 7 suffer a sharp drop in student achievement in the transition year.   The authors confirm that these achievement drops occur in nonurban areas and persist through grade 10, by which time most students have transitioned into high school. They 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.  The Impact of Alternative Grade Configurations on Student Outcomes through Middle and High School

    • This study reports that entering a middle school causes a sharp drop in student achievement relative to the performance of those remaining in K–8 schools. The authors find that moving to a middle school causes a substantial drop in student test scores (relative to that of students who remain in K–8 schools) the first year in which the transition takes place, not just in New York City but also in the big cities, suburbs, and small-town and rural areas of Florida. Further, they find that the relative achievement of middle-school students continues to decline in the subsequent years they spend in such schools. The results confirm that transitions into both middle schools and high schools cause drops in student achievement but that these effects are far larger for students entering middle schools. The Middle School Plunge

    • This article talks about the “top dog, bottom dog” phenomenon of early adolescence, and reports on a study that found that when students are not the "bottom dogs," or at the lowest grade span in a middle school, they reported feeling safer, less bullying, less fighting and a greater sense of belonging. The authors point out that the bottom dog phenomenon does not exist in K-8 schools, promoting a safer learning environment for early adolescents. Sixth Grade is Tough; It Helps to be ‘Top Dog’

    • This report reviews research on how school transitions and different grade configurations impact student achievement and behavior, as well as student psychological and social-emotional outcomes.  Since parents may have questions about the potential impacts, we have included this wide review of research and the outcomes. "Impact of School Transitions and Different Grade Configurations"


Research Summary

  • Student Achievement

    • Higher GPA
    • Better scores on standardized state math tests
    • Better scores on standardized state reading tests
    • Better state test composite scores 

    Multiple studies found that elementary school students did significantly better than middle and junior high school students of the same age in GPA, standardized state math scores, standardized state reading scores, and state test composite scores.

    In addition, studies showed that when students transition to another school, they experience a significant drop in academic related outcomes. Overall, the literature appears to favor a K-8 model over a middle school or junior high school model.

    Student Psychological and Social-Emotional Outcomes

    • Higher self-esteem
    • Higher self-concept of their achievement potential
    • Lower levels of school threat or violence
    • Better prepared for class
    • Absent less often
    • Reported significantly less substance abuse 

    The majority of the research reviewed showed significant advantages in the student psychological and social-emotional areas for students in elementary and K-8 grade configurations over students in middle school or junior high school grade configurations.

    Researchers also showed a significantly negative impact on students’ psychological and social emotional well-being when students transitioned from one school to another.

    One clear finding is across the studies, however, was that school transitions, overall, had negative effects on academic, psychological and social-emotional and student behavior outcomes. This suggests that the fewer transitions for students, the better.

    In districts with fewer transitions (K-8/9-12), student drop-out rates were significantly lower than in districts with K-5, middle school, and high school configurations.

    Student Behavior

    • Analysis showed mixed results
    • Higher rates of suspension after transitioning to new school
    • The more transitions in districts, the higher the rates of student drop-out

    Authors of these studies caution that more research is needed to explore how school culture, student-teacher relationships, leadership, teaching practices, school size, cohort size, and demographic differences in student populations contribute to the differences seen in elementary school grade configurations versus middle and junior high school grade configurations.

    This is because several of the researchers suggested that some of the differences found in student academic achievement, psychological and social-emotional wellbeing, and behavior in the K-8 models may be due to differences in these other factors rather than grade configuration per se. 

    What may be more important, then, is a school’s organizational culture and teaching practices such as developmentally appropriate practices for early adolescents, student-teacher relationships and support for learning (promoted in K-8 by smaller grade size), heterogeneous grouping and high expectations for all students, and collaborative teacher relationships such as team teaching.