The (Limited) Evidence Regarding Effects of Grade-Span
Configurations on Academic Achievement: What Rural Educators Should Know.
by Coladarci, Theodore - Hancock, Julie
"Grade span," or "grade configuration," is the range of grades that
a school comprises. For example, students in Bangor, Maine (where the first
author's children attended school) begin their education career at a K-3
school, proceed to a 4-5 school, then a 6-8 school, and finally to the
9-12 high school. There are many alternatives to the Bangor profile, of
course. Table 1 shows the configurations, involving selected grades, for
public schools across the country. The sixth grade, for example, most often
is found in a P/K-6 school (41.49%), although the 6-8 configuration is
not uncommon (25.34%). Roughly half of eighth-grade schools are configured
either 6-8 (35.23%) or P/K-8 (19.12%), with a sizable number evenly divided
between 7-12 (11.67%) and 7-8 (11.66) configurations. Finally, a 12th grade
typically is situated in a 9-12 school (66.48%), with 7-12 (16.46%) and
P/K-12 (7.82%) accounting for the remaining schools having a 12th grade.
However configured, a school's grade span is an important issue to various
factions concerned with public education. For example, many proponents
of middle-level education favor the educational separation of young adolescents
to best accommodate their developmental needs and characteristics (e.g.,
Jenkins & McEwin, 1992). According to such thought, a 5-8 or 6-8 configuration
is more desirable than, say, a K-8 configuration. Rural educators, in contrast,
sometimes decry such grade fragmentation because of its association with
school consolidation, school closures, and the threatened survival of rural
communities (e.g., DeYoung, Howley, & Theobald, 1995). Finally, budget-minded
school board members and legislators typically raise a basic cost-benefit
question: For a fixed allocation of dollars, which configuration of grades
is likely to produce the best academic results?
Our focus is on the relationship between grade span and "academic achievement."
To be sure, there are other considerations that influence decisions regarding
the configuration of grades in a school or district, such as those related
to fiscal constraints, political tensions, or geographical realities. We
do not mean to impugn their importance by not addressing these considerations
here. But what ultimately matters--or should matter--to educators, policymakers,
business persons, and the general public is how much students learn. This
is particularly true in the present era of educational reform in which
student performance on standards-aligned achievement assessments has become
the veritable bottom line. So, what "is" known about the effects of grade
span on academic achievement?
Unfortunately, research bearing on this general question is limited.
Many accounts of grade-span effects are, in fact, descriptive cases of
a particular school that changed its grade configuration for one reason
or another. The "Northwest Sampler" compiled by Paglin and Fager (1997)
is an engaging example of such accounts. But as provocative as case studies
may be, they are not designed to suggest the causal "effects" of something
(like grade span). More technical methods are required, such as statistical
procedures that attempt to take into account, or control for, important
confounding factors. However, only a few grade-span researchers have employed
such methods (Calhoun, 1983) and it is to their studies that we now turn.
In his study of 18 schools in New York City, Moore (1984) found that
both seventh- and eighth-grade reading achievement was higher for students
in K-8 schools than in schools having a 6-8 configuration. The K-8 and
6-8 schools were similar in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Further, Moore statistically controlled for the sixth-grade achievement
of these students. This means that the achievement disadvantage associated
with 6-8 schools was not due to a pre-existing achievement deficit. Better
attendance, more positive attitudes toward school, and higher self-esteem
also were reported for seventh and eighth graders in K-8 schools.
Although based on urban schools, Moore's findings are consistent with
those reported by Franklin and Glascock (1998) in their study of more than
700 rural schools in Louisiana. These researchers found that sixth and
seventh graders in K-6, K-7, and K-12 schools performed significantly higher
on the state achievement test than students in 6-8 and 7-9 schools. Further,
students in the 10th grade had significantly higher test scores, and fewer
behavior problems, in K-12 schools than in 7-12, 8-12, or 9-12 schools.
The statistical analysis took into account school size and community socioeconomic
Bickel, Howley, Williams, and Glascock (2001) examined 10th-grade Texas
Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) scores for 1,001 Texas schools. Equipped
with a cornucopia of control variables (e.g., demographics, school size,
expenditures), Bickel et al. reported a slight but statistically significant
advantage for K-12 schools when compared to all other configurations containing
the 10th grade. This difference held for reading, writing, and mathematics
With a sample of 163 Maine schools (arguably one of the more rural states
in this country), Wihry, Coladarci, and Meadow (1992) examined the influence
of grade span on eighth-grade student performance on the state achievement
test. Statistically controlling for school-level socioeconomic status,
per-capita income in the community, and parent educational attainment,
Wihry et al. found that eighth-grade total achievement was significantly
higher in K-8, K-9, and 3-8 schools than in schools configured around the
middle grades (4-8, 5-8, 6-8) or those having a junior/senior high school
configuration (6-12, 7-12, 8-12).
In a study of sixth-grade achievement in 330 Pennsylvanian schools,
Becker (1987) found that the grade-span effect on academic achievement
depended on the students' socioeconomic status. That is, although there
was an overall achievement advantage to locating sixth graders in an elementary
versus a middle school configuration, the advantage was most evident among
students low in socioeconomic status. This "interaction" between grade-span
configuration and socioeconomic status prevailed across content areas (mathematics,
reading, science, and social studies), and it held after Becker controlled
for such factors as instructional practices, tracking and ability grouping,
and enrollment per grade.
Their convergence notwithstanding, these results should be treated with
considerable caution. Although the studies above were generally well designed,
they nonetheless are few in number. Further, achievement effects have been
examined mostly at the middle-level grades. And although these researchers
attempted to take into account important confounding influences (e.g.,
socioeconomic status), there doubtless are other factors that, if considered,
would change the results--perhaps markedly. Although a tiresome refrain,
more research clearly is needed!
That said, the consistency of grade-span results is noteworthy and generally
suggest that achievement in the middle grades is higher in schools having
an elementary-wide configuration than a middle-grades configuration. If
these results stand up to subsequent research, then the important question
is, "Why?" We believe that the answer, in part, may lie in the continuity
of experience that wider grade spans afford.
When students make the transition from one school to the next, they
experience the usual novelties associated with any advancement to the next
grade, such as a more challenging curriculum. But there are other changes
as well: a new building, unfamiliar teachers and administrators, different
expectations for student conduct, new constellations of classmates, and
so on. While there is not an abundance of research on this topic, the evidence
suggests that transition effects are largely negative. For example, Simmons
and Blyth (1987) reported a decline in performance, motivation, and self-esteem
following a transition from one school to another. Similar results have
been obtained by others (NMSA Research Summary #8).
In a K-8 configuration, absence of school-to-school transitions and
greater continuity of experience arguably may be behind the higher achievement
that has been reported for middle-grade students attending such schools.
And it perhaps is responsible for the better attendance, more positive
attitudes toward school, and higher self-esteem that Moore (1984) reported
for these students. A similar argument would explain why a sixth grader
would be advantaged in a K-6 school versus a 6-8 school. But these are
mere conjectures on our part, and they are subject to confirmation or refutation
by future research.
What, then, is a school system to do? The available research cannot
answer this question with any degree of certainty, but the pattern of findings
raises two important caveats. First, the segregation of adolescents in
middle-grade schools does not necessarily translate into higher achievement.
Indeed, the available evidence suggests just the opposite. With one exception
(Becker, 1987), however, the research we summarized did not take into consideration
the instructional or interpersonal dimensions of school life. Once grade-span
researchers devote more attention to these matters, we suspect that a school's
configuration of grades will be less important than the results above may
suggest, at least in terms of academic achievement. In this sense, we are
sympathetic to the position of the National Middle School Association:
"Effective programs and practices, not grade configuration, determine the
quality of schools" (NMSA Research Summary #1).
Second, where grade fragmentation is a reality, steps should be taken
to lessen the adverse effects on students of school-to-school transitions.
We agree with Paglin and Fager (1997, p. 9) that a school system with multiple
grade spans should have in place "articulation and transition activities"
among its units. Teachers and students alike should have an informed view
of the instructional and social world of the next school in line. This,
too, is an important direction for future research. Is the adverse grade-span
effect on academic achievement softened in multi-unit systems having articulation
and transition activities compared to multi-unit systems that do not? Is
the positive grade-span effect in K-8 schools diminished where there is
little dialogue among teachers across grade levels?
One should not infer from our closing caveats that grade configuration
ultimately may not matter--that this structural feature of schools "in
and of itself" may not affect academic outcomes. Rather, our point simply
is that researchers must continue to disentangle grade span from its corollaries.
The configuration of grades, in and of itself, probably "does" matter.
The challenge for us is to become smarter about "why."
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