Grab Your Sons and Your Daughters

June 1, 2007

In the 1970s, less than 25 percent of middle schools included sixth grade. Now, the figure is 75 percent nationwide and 90 percent in North Carolina, which has led the trend toward middle schools comprising grades 6-8. The shift took place in part because of overcrowding, but also because educators believed it was developmentally appropriate.

But a new study by researchers at Duke and the University of California at Berkeley has found that sixth-graders placed in middle schools have more discipline problems and lower test scores than their peers who attend elementary schools. In addition, it found the negative effects of grouping sixth-graders with older students are lasting and persist at least through ninth grade.

"These findings cast serious doubt on the wisdom of the historic nationwide shift to the grades 6-8 middle-school format," says Philip J. Cook, a professor of public policy and economics and one of the paper's authors.

"What's been lacking in the debate is any real data on how the school configuration affects student behavior and performance," Cook says. "As it turns out, moving sixth grade out of elementary school appears to have had substantial costs."

The researchers contrasted sixth-graders attending North Carolina's grade 6-8 middle schools with those attending grade K-6 elementary schools. The study data included 44,709 sixth-graders in 243 schools in ninety-nine districts.

The sixth-graders attending middle school were more than twice as likely to be disciplined as those attending elementary school, after accounting for socioeconomic and demographic differences in the groups. Drug-related disciplinary incidents were nearly four times greater among the middle-school group. The pattern continued as the sixth-graders advanced through the grades, suggesting that the problems were not tied solely to the transition to a new school environment.

In addition, sixth-graders in elementary schools improved their scores on end-of-grade exams in math and reading relative to their peers in middle schools, and those gains persisted through ninth grade.

Although the study didn't pinpoint the causes for the differences, the authors concluded that the 6-8 middle-school structure brought impressionable sixth-graders into routine contact with older adolescents who were a bad influence. Older adolescents are more rebellious and more involved in delinquency, sex, illicit drugs, and other activities that violate school rules, the authors noted.

"This points to a general pattern [indicating that] it is better for kids to make transitions later rather than earlier," says Jacob Vigdor, a co-author and associate professor of public policy. "Sixth grade is an especially vulnerable time, in the sense that sixth-graders display a strong susceptibility to peer influence."