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Because we compare the achievement of individual students to themselves over time, our analysis takes into account all student characteristics (both observed and unobserved) that do not change over time. In addition, we also control for whether the individual student had been retained in a grade, whether the student had ever been retained, and whether the student attends a charter school (which in Florida are more likely than traditional public schools to have K–8 configurations).

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Our 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. One possible interpretation of this pattern is that school transitions are more disruptive for younger students, perhaps because they are more susceptible to the negative influence of older students. Yet our estimates suggest that the effect of middle-school entry on student achievement is larger for students entering in grade 7 than for students entering in grade 6. Moreover, the fact that relative achievement continues to decline after students’ initial entry into middle schools suggests that average educational quality in Florida is lower in stand-alone middle schools than in schools serving grades K–8.

The Middle School Plunge - Education Next

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Our results cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the middle-school experiment that has become such a prominent feature of American education. We 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, we find that the relative achievement of middle-school students continues to decline in the subsequent years they spend in such schools. Nor do we find any sign that the middle-school students catch up with those who remained in the K–8 environment once all of them have entered high school. On the contrary, students entering a middle school in grade 6 are more likely not to be enrolled in any Florida public school as 10th graders (despite having been enrolled in grade 9), a strong indication that they have dropped out of school by that time.

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The key assumption of our methodology is that there are no unobserved differences between students who in 3rd grade attended schools that had these different grade configurations that affect achievement precisely in the year when students enter middle school. In other words, we are assuming that the negative effect of a transition is not anticipated by parents and reflected in the choice of a school with a particular grade configuration in grade 3. We conduct an analogous analysis of high-school entry, taking advantage of the different grade configurations of the schools students attended in 6th grade.

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Our strategy for identifying the effects of alternative grade configurations on student achievement parallels and extends that of Rockoff and Lockwood’s study of New York City middle schools mentioned above. Specifically, we examine changes in individual students’ achievement over time, focusing on differences in the timing of students’ entry into middle school that result from the grade configuration of the school the student attended in 3rd grade. For example, we are interested in whether students who attended a K–6 school in 3rd grade experience a drop in their achievement in 7th grade relative to students who attended a K–8 school in 3rd grade and thus did not switch schools between grades 6 and 7.

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Results for students of different ethnicities follow a similar pattern. Grade configuration has a larger effect on the math scores of traditionally disadvantaged subgroups than on other students. Black students in particular demonstrate large relative gains in math achievement prior to entering a middle school but then suffer larger drops both at and following the transition. Again, however, we find only small and statistically insignificant differences between the effects estimated for students of different ethnicities in reading. We find no differences in the effects for girls and boys.