Does attending a middle school make a difference to student achievement compared to attending the same elementary school through Grade 8? Is academic performance unaffected, enhanced or eroded? How do students from disadvantaged backgrounds fare? These are big questions for educators and parents – especially as school boards look to close schools in the coming years.
The evidence is in, and it shows that it is better for students to remain in the same elementary school from kindergarten to Grade 8 than to switch to a middle school.
Students in Ontario typically follow one of three paths from Grade 5 to Grade 9. Most students remain in the same school until Grade 8 before moving on to secondary school. Others leave elementary school after Grade 6, usually to complete Grades 7 and 8 in a standard middle school, or junior high school. A smaller number leave their elementary school after Grade 5 and attend an extended middle school for Grades 6, 7 and 8.
My previous research shows that students who attend extended middle schools experience an immediate setback. They write the Grade 6 assessment at the end of their first year in a new school. These students do worse than similar students who write the same Grade 6 assessment without changing schools. The reading and math pass rates – the share of all students who meet or exceed provincial standards – in Grade 6 are between 6 and 7 percentage points lower for students who attend an extended middle school, than for students who do not attend middle school.
What are the longer-term effects?
In a C.D. Howe Institute study released Tuesday, I compare student achievement on the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessments in Grades 9 and 10 by students who follow the three different paths.
Before taking into account their socio-economic backgrounds, students who follow the standard middle-school path (Grades 7 and 8) achieve higher pass rates on Grades 9 and 10 tests than students who do not attend middle schools. Students who attended extended middle school (Grades 6 to 8) do slightly worse than students who do not attend middle school. The performance gaps are small, less than 1 percentage point in both assessments.
At first glance, these results suggest that the standard middle-school path improves Grades 9 and 10 performances, while attending extended middle school lowers secondary school performance. The reason for this is that about half of the variation in pass rates on provincial assessments at Ontario schools is due to differences in the socio-economic backgrounds of students who attend. These socio-economic advantages mean that middle-school students should otherwise have higher pass rates on the Grades 6, 9 and 10 assessments, as compared to students who do not attend middle school.
After adjusting for differences in student background, I found that, compared to a student who does not attend middle school, the probability of passing the Grade 9 mathematics assessment is 1.5 percentage points lower when a student attends an extended middle school, and 1.7 percentage points lower when a student follows the standard middle-school path. This means that middle-school attendance is associated with about 600 additional Grade 9 math exam failures per year.
Further, I found that students on the standard middle-school path have a 1 percentage point lower probability of passing the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test in Grade 10 – an additional 300 test failures.
Students from neighbourhoods where adults have less university education, compared to the provincial average, have even lower probabilities of passing the Grade 9 math test when they attend middle schools, relative to similar students who do not attend middle school.
These findings confirm a series of similar results in other jurisdictions. Given this evidence, it makes no sense to open new middle schools. In fact, policy-makers should place a high priority on closing middle schools in communities with shrinking student populations.
David Johnson is the education policy scholar at the C.D. Howe Institute and professor of economics at Wilfrid Laurier University. His study is available at http://www.cdhowe.org/