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  • Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better A Large-Scale Study of Middle Grades Practices and Student Outcomes

    Narrative Summary of Findings • February 2010

  • Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better


    Trish Williams, executive director, study project director

    Matthew Rosin, Ph.D., senior research associate

    Mary Perry, deputy director

    Ben Webman, senior data analyst

    Kathy Wilson, research assistant

    Rebecca Payne, research intern

    Kathryn Morgan Woodward, research associate

    Stanford University

    Michael W. Kirst, Ph.D., professor emeritus, study principal investigator

    Edward Haertel, Ph.D., professor, study technical director

    American Institutes for Research Jesse Levin, Ph.D., senior research scientist

    Special Consultants Bill Padia, Ph.D., (retired) deputy superintendent, assessment and accountability, California Department of Education

    Robert Balfanz, Ph.D., principal research scientist, Everyone Graduates Center, Johns Hopkins University, advising consultant to the study

    EdSource thanks Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, for his generous support of this study.

    Suggested citation: Williams, T., Kirst, M., Haertel, E., et al. (2010). Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better. Mountain View, CA: EdSource.

    This narrative report is a short summary of a complicated and comprehensive study. For more detail see the Initial Research Report and the Technical Appendices at middle-grades-study.html

    EdSource 520 San Antonio Road, Suite 200 Mountain View, CA 94040-1217

    Copyright © 2010 EdSource, Inc. All rights reserved.

    For more information or permission to reprint, contact: or call 650-917-9481

    Narrative Summary—Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades

    A Large-Scale Study of Middle Grades Practices and Student Outcomes



  • Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades: Why Some Schools Do Better

    1© 2010 EdSource


    Middle grade schools

    that are outperforming

    their peers with similar

    students are doing

    so with a full-court

    organizational press

    on improved student

    outcomes. That press—

    from including student

    outcomes in educator

    evaluations to

    ensuring teacher

    common planning

    time for discussions of

    student assessment—

    reflects a significant

    school culture shift

    and is focused on

    preparing students

    for the future.

    In the 2008-09 school year researchers from EdSource and Stanford University conducted a large-scale study of 303 middle grades schools in California. The team surveyed 303 principals, 3,752 English Language Arts (ELA) and math teachers in grades 6-8, and 157 superintendents of the districts and charter management organizations that oversee the schools.

    The sample of schools included grades 6-8 (50%), K-8 (24%), and 7-8 (26%). Half of the schools served predominantly low-income student populations and half served predominately middle-income populations. Twenty-seven of the schools were charters.

    The three separate surveys explored 10 broad domains of effective middle grades practice, and included over 900 items combined. Questions focused on concrete, actionable practices and policies and were drawn from an extensive review of middle grades research and theory as well as current state and federal policy.

    The study analyzed the reported district and school practices against spring 2009 scores on California’s standards-based tests in ELA and math in grades 6, 7, and 8 taken by the close to 204,000 students in our sample. Multiple regression analyses controlled for student demographic differences. One set of analyses relied on a longitudinal student data file to control for three years of prior student achievement to determine which reported practices by middle grades educators were most strongly associated with schools that showed gains or growth in student scores over what would have been predicted.

    Gaining Ground in the Middle Grades is one of the largest studies of its kind conducted on middle grades educational practices and their relationship to student outcomes. The major contribution of our study is the set of specific actionable practices that middle grades educators and leaders can implement now by making smart, strategic choices.

    After controlling for student demographics, what did this study find?

    Among middle grades schools serving very similar students in terms of socio-economic background, parent education level, and ethnicity, some schools are doing much better than their peers at improving student outcomes in ELA and mathematics.

    What differentiates the higher-performing schools most from the lower-performing schools is a shared district and schoolwide culture that

    n places its primary focus on improvements in academic outcomes for all students, from the lowest performing to the highest;

    n designs its instructional program to prepare all students for a rigorous high school education.

    This focus is reflected in how district and school educators set measurable goals for improvement, communicate with students and families about the relationship of middle grades achievement to future goals, and make improved student outcomes a part of educator performance evaluations. It is also reflected in the intensity and coherence with which the educators align school curricula, assessments, and instruction to the state’s academic standards; how assessment data are reviewed and analyzed to improve instruction and learning; and how both required and voluntary academic interventions are implemented to proactively keep students on track.

    This study did not find a consistent or strong association between student outcomes on standards- based tests and school grade configuration or organizational models of teachers and instruction.

    This Narrative Summary provides the reader with a broad overview of the study’s methodology, limitations, and findings. We conclude with implications of our findings. For more detail on the numerous high- impact and actionable practices and policies identified in our study, go to page 8 of this Narrative.

  • Why Are Middle Grades Outcomes So Important?

    As expectations for a more highly educated Ameri- can citizenry rise, what happens in the middle grades matters more now than ever. That is because:

    n It is in the middle grades where many students begin to lose ground in key subject areas such as mathematics. In California, which educates one in every eight students in grades 6 through 8 in the United States, student achievement in mathematics in any given year is lower in the middle grades than in the elementary grades. Although California has made much progress in recent years in improving the middle grades performance levels of its students, according to data published by the California Department of Education (CDE), two-thirds of 4th graders in California scored proficient or advanced in mathematics in 2009, compared with only 43% of 7th graders. Nationally, most states see a dip in middle grade proficiency levels on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) compared with elementary levels.

    n Middle grades are the last best chance to iden- tify students at risk of academic failure and get them back on track in time to succeed in high school. Recent data analyses in California (Kurlaender, Reardon, et al. 2008; Zau and Betts, 2008) show that many students at the greatest risk of high school failure could be identified early—during the middle grades and the late elementary years—by their grades, attendance, behavior, and test scores. A June 2009 policy and practice brief by Robert Balfanz, which looked at students in Philadelphia schools, found that in high-poverty environments a student’s middle grades experience strongly impacts the odds of

    graduating from high school. Again, the more “off track” indicators a student has, and the few- er opportunities the school provides for interven- tion and correction, the more likely that student will not graduate from high school, much less enter a college preparatory curriculum there.

    n Success in key subjects in the middle grades is a strong predictor of success in high school and beyond. In California, students’ scores on middle grades standards-based tests in math and ELA can signal their chances of passing the California high school exit exam, which they first take in 10th grade. Further, their test scores in math often determine their math placement when they begin high school, which has implications for science placement, and consequently for completing the requisite rigorous college preparatory coursework needed for admission to the University of Califor- nia and the California State University systems.

    The past two decades have seen the release of many reports stressing the importance of the middle grades. All have focused to one degree or another— and with more or less specificity—on the broad concepts of developmental responsiveness (to young adolescent needs), social equity (ensuring that all students are encouraged and supported to achieve at their full potential), and academic excellence or rigor (consistent with standards-base