Despite an increasing curiosity about the effectiveness of education, researchers have tended to overlook one of K-12 schools’ critical phases: the middle grades.
As every former adolescent knows, grades six through eight represent a crucial transition. Students gain maturity and autonomy as they leave elementary school and prepare for high school. Academics become more challenging, extracurriculars more intense, and social lives more complex. These three years of change set the foundation for students’ later lives, and by knowing which factors contribute to success, we can help improve education for future generations.
To provide this data, in 2015 the U.S. Department of Education chose RTI to manage the first-ever Middle Grades Longitudinal Study, or MGLS. The results will fill a data gap between studies of elementary and high school education.
Surveying Thousands of Students to Inform the Middle Grades Experience
MGLS will follow thousands of students through the middle grades, collecting data annually for three years about factors that influence their cognitive development. Experiences at home, at school, with friends, and with the physical changes of adolescence all have an impact, and will be taken into account.
Since starting the project, we have completed two field tests and developed technologies to conduct this new survey. Our goal is to recruit approximately 900 schools from 48 states. The survey will focus on grades six through eight regardless of whether all three grades are situated in the same school, allowing us to study differences in experiences across different school configurations.
Through interviews, we will compile a complete picture of students’ home and school environment, social skills, problem behaviors, and support systems. We will look for risk factors that tend to undermine academic achievement, such as poverty and parents with a low level of education. Even students’ height and weight will be recorded. These contextual factors will help deepen our understanding of social and emotional learning (SEL), an important part of positive development.
To better understand how students with disabilities develop, students with autism, emotional disturbances, and specific learning disabilities will be a special focus. In turn, these data have the potential to inform future policies for disability education.
The academic side of the survey includes assessments of math, reading, and executive function—the “getting things done” skills that are so essential to success in school. The assessments themselves are being developed based on our experience with similar K-12 education studies, including the High School Longitudinal Study and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.
MGLS will also benefit from a new, RTI-designed system for delivering the student survey and assessments. Field staff will bring equipment to the schools where participants will complete the session using Chromebooks that connect to a more powerful laptop using a single WiFi hotspot. The self-contained system ensures standardization and keeps data secure.
Understanding the Transitions from Elementary to High School
At key moments between elementary and middle school, or between middle and high school, students run the risk of losing engagement with academics or other activities that help build a foundation for high school graduation. With a better understanding of the causes of unsuccessful transitions, educators can help protect and nurture students who are at risk.
With the first of three rounds of data collection underway, leaders in middle-grades education and middle-grades education research are already enthusiastic about sharing information, participating, and eventually learning from the results. By providing the first nationwide, longitudinal data on the middle-school experience, MGLS will grow into a valuable resource for the education and policy communities.