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Middle Schools Need Help, Congressman Says

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Don't overlook middle schools in NCLB reauthorization, some members of Congress are saying.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Az., is pointing to findings buried in a recent report that show a disproportionate number of middle schools are failing to make AYP. Although 15 percent of schools in the Title I program serve the middle grades, a third of the schools in restructuring or corrective action are middle schools, the Government Accountability Office says in this report.

Rep. Grijalva is pointing to the figures as a reason to address middle schools' problems in NCLB reauthorization. He has sponsored a middle school bill, H.R. 3406. It would require states to write plans to improve their middle schools and to create a system to identify middle schoolers at risk of academic failure. The bill also would start a national clearinghouse on how to improve the academic achievement of middle schoolers.

Rep. Grijalva is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and says he will offer his middle school bill as an amendment to the NCLB bill the committee considers. He has the support of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

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Middle schools no doubt can use assistance. So can any other kind of school at risk of academic failure. I fear, however, that Rep. Grijalva is drawing poor inferences from the data.

The GAO report points out in a footnote that under NCLB's rules middle schools may have more opportunities than elementary schools to fail to make AYP, simply because they enroll more students than elementary schools. AYP rules almost always set a minimum group size. That means that all else equal, a school of 1,000 has at least double the chance it will contain a student group that exceeds the minimum N than a school of 500. Any such group must pass the AYP test. The more such groups, the more opportunities to fail to make AYP.

So, why aren't more high schools failing to meet AYP? After all, they are even larger. Because under AYP students are tested in each grade 3 to 8 but only one grade is tested in high school. That means most elementary schools have two or three sets of opportunities to fail (for grades 3, 4, and maybe 5), most middle schools have three or four opportunities to fail (for grades 8, 7, 6 and maybe 5), and high schools have only one set of opportunities to fail.

I fear Arie van der Ploeg is right when it comes to the reasons that a greater percentage of middle schools than elementary schools fail to make AYP. This does not mean, however, that they do not need help. Looking at aggregated scores by middle school frequently shows a dip. Middle schoolers are really special kids and definitely an acquired taste. Their development is all over the map, they have as much energy as a two year old (and sometimes the same judgement), but they frequently look like adults. They are dealing with emancipation from their families, really interesting hormonal changes, and new school and social configurations. They really need specialized attention.

Van der Ploeg is wrong, however in his comparison to high schools. While NCLB does require only one round of testing (and a smaller tested population to make AYP) for high school, the other effects in high school are those of drop out and hold back. By tenth grade in many districts the population is not comparable to that tested at middle school, having lost 30-40% of its lowest performers to the "ninth grade bubble" or the streets.

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