Grade Configuration, School Climate, and Academic Achievement in Middle Grade Students

Malone, Marisa, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Cornell, Dewey, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

For decades, educators have been concerned about the low academic achievement observed in middle grade students. Studies that compare middle schools to other school configurations, such as Kindergarten-8th grade elementary schools, generally associate elementary schools with better outcomes. Previous research has hypothesized that one explanation for the lower achievement evident in middle schools is poor school climate. This three-paper dissertation investigated the linkages among school grade configuration, school climate, and academic achievement of Virginia middle grade students. School climate was evaluated through student responses to a school climate survey. Using the framework of authoritative school climate theory, schools with positive climates had high ratings of structure (strict, but fair rules and high academic expectations), and support (respectful teachers who demonstrate willingness to help students succeed). Academic achievement was evaluated using school-level standardized test pass rates provided by the Virginia Department of Education.
The first study examined 7th- and 8th-grade student perceptions of school climate in 418 Virginia elementary, middle, junior high, and high schools. Participants included 39,036 students who completed the 2013 Virginia Secondary School Climate Survey. Multilevel multivariate models were used to account for the nesting of students within schools and controlled for demographics. Seventh grade students in middle schools reported significantly lower disciplinary structure and higher prevalence of teasing and bullying (PTB) in comparison to 7th graders placed in the other configurations. Eighth grade students in middle schools reported significantly lower disciplinary structure, engagement, and higher PTB in comparison to 8th graders placed in high schools. These findings were consistent with other studies that showed poor outcomes in middle schools. Whereas other studies only examined one grade or analyzed multiple grades together, the examination of 7th and 8th grade separately revealed notable differences between the grades.
The second study examined school-wide reading and mathematics standardized test pass rates for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students placed in 573 Virginia elementary, middle, and high schools. Latent growth modeling was used to examine achievement across three years, given that changes in state standards or curricula may influence school pass rates in a given year. For 6th and 7th grade, pass rates were significantly higher in elementary schools than middle schools for both subjects. For 8th grade, pass rates were higher in middle schools than high schools. Overall, this study showed that, in regard to academic achievement, the middle school setting was only advantageous for 8th grade students.
The third study examined the relations among grade configuration, school climate and academic achievement. Of particular interest was the examination of whether school climate mediated the association between grade configuration and academic achievement. Participants included 48,451 6th and 7th grade students in 310 Virginia elementary and middle schools who completed the 2017 Virginia Secondary School Climate Survey. Analysis of covariance models showed that students in both grades reported higher ratings of school climate and demonstrated higher reading and mathematics achievement in elementary schools than middle schools. Mediated hierarchical regression analyses indicated that school climate was positively associated with 6th and 7th grade reading standardized test pass rates, and that school climate partially mediated the relationship between grade configuration and reading achievement.
Taken together, these studies show that 6th and 7th grade students in Virginia middle schools have higher perceptions of school climate, and better academic outcomes in elementary schools in comparison to the more commonly used middle schools. The poor school climate in middle schools is problematic, given that previous research has associated poor school climate with a host of detrimental outcomes. The present studies are correlational and cannot establish causal effects, but they are consistent with the view the school climate plays an important role in the academic achievement of middle grade students. Furthermore, the middle school configuration is not conducive to 6th and 7th grade achievement. Eighth grade students demonstrated higher achievement in middle schools than in high schools (there were too few elementary schools with 8th grade to examine), but more research is needed to determine the best configuration for this grade. Based on the present findings, we recommend that educational authorities consider expanding elementary schools through at least 7th grade. In existing middle schools, educators should consider strategies to improve school climate as a means to improve academic achievement.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
grade configuration, middle school, school climate, academic achievement
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