November 13, 2012 – In neighbourhoods with falling student populations, policymakers should place a priority on closing middle schools and avoid opening new ones elsewhere, according to a report released today by the C.D. Howe Institute. In “Are Middle Schools Good for Student Academic Achievement? Evidence from Ontario,” author David R. Johnson shows that middle school attendance increases the chance that students will fail provincially administered achievement tests, compared to similar students who stay in the same school through Grade 8.
Many Ontario students attend middle schools rather than staying in the same elementary school through Grade 8, notes Johnson. Some students switch to an “extended middle school” for grades 6, 7, and 8. Most of the remaining students who switch schools attend a “standard middle school” where grades 7 and 8 are taught.
But Johnson’s report raises troubling questions for parents and educators about the role of middle schools in Ontario. Does attending a middle school make a difference to student achievement compared to attending the same elementary school through Grade 8? Is the academic performance of students unaffected, enhanced or eroded? How do students from disadvantaged backgrounds fare?
To answer these questions, Johnson compares student achievement on the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) assessments in Grade 9 and Grade 10 by students who follow the three different paths. He compares the results of students who stay in the same elementary school through Grade 8 (66.4 percent of students in Ontario in the 2005/2006 school year – to students who follow one of two middle school paths: those who leave their elementary school after Grade 6 (20.2 percent of students), usually to attend standard middle school, and those who leave after Grade 5 to attend an extended middle school (9.8 percent of students). To further refine the analysis, the author then screens out the socio-economic background of students based on the education levels of their parents, which is important for the analysis since middle schools are typically located in communities with higher-than-average parental education levels.
Among his findings: the probability of passing the province’s Grade 9 mathematics assessment, after controlling for differences in student background, 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. Johnson finds that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do especially worse in middle schools.
The report concludes that in regions with falling student populations, policymakers should place a priority on closing middle schools and, elsewhere, avoid opening new ones.
For more information contact: David R. Johnson, Education Policy Scholar at the C.D. Howe Institute and Professor of Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University; or Benjamin Dachis, Senior Policy Analyst, C.D. Howe Institute. 416-865-1904; email: firstname.lastname@example.org