Monday, January 26, 2015

Research on Grade-span Configuration

The following is a short research paper on some of the anticipated effects of a transition to narrow grade buildings may have. It was written by Shippensburg University education professor Phillip Diller during the community discussion in 2006 about the proposed realignment of the Shippensburg School District. My biggest concerns are highlighted in yellow--I'm afraid that the bigger schools will negatively affect community building at each center, and am concerned that the many transitions will be hard for our most vulnerable. I'm interested to hear if the Shippensburg School District has more recent research that supports their interest in school realignment. Or not.

Re: Research on Grade-span Configuration

Phillip Diller, Ed.D.
Shippensburg University

There were two assertions in a memo sent to Luhrs families in May, 2006: “research indicates that maintaining a wider range of grade levels in school buildings has positive benefits on student achievement” and “family involvement appears to be more extensive in schools with wider grade spans than in schools with narrow grade spans.” In response to challenges to these statements, this brief provides the supporting evidence.

The first assertion, that wider grade span has a positive effect on student achievement, is supported in part by research on K-8 school configurations.  Early indication that the wider grade span might positively benefit achievement came from studies done in rural Maine.  Wihry, Coladarci, and Meadow (1992) used data from an annual standardized test, the Maine Educational Assessment, to measure the influence of grade span on the academic achievement of eighth-graders. After analyzing the scores of eighth-graders in schools with different grade configurations, the researchers concluded that eighth-graders learning in elementary settings (K-8, K-9, and 3-8) outperformed eighth-graders in schools with other grade configurations.

Lee & Smith (1993) found that 8th grade students in schools that contained a wider grade span with fewer students per grade had higher achievement than did those who attended more narrowly-configured schools.

Tucker and Andrada (1997) compared achievement data from Connecticut 6th graders who were in their last year of elementary (K-6) school to that of sixth-graders who had attended K-5 schools.  The results indicated that in all subject areas the performance of sixth-grade students at the K-6 schools was better than the performance of sixth-grade students from K-5 schools.

Between the 1999 and 2002, 21 Cleveland schools were reconfigured or were in the process of being reconfigured to accommodate kindergarten through 8th grade. The results were significant, with 6th graders in K-8 schools posting better attendance and higher standardized test scores than their peers in middle school. (Pardini, 2002)

Closer to home, Viadero (2006) describes an evaluation of math achievement among Philadelphia 5th – 8th graders. The study, using data from 2003- 2005, found higher achievement in K-8 schools than in middle schools with similar demographics.

Gao and Alspaugh (2001), investigating the relationship between grade-span configuration and achievement rates in Missouri schools found that students attending middle schools experienced a greater achievement loss in the transition to high school than did the students making the transition from a K-8 elementary school. The experience of making a previous transition did not mitigate the achievement loss during the transition to high school.

Alspaugh (1999) also found a possible relationship between the number of school-to-school transitions and high school dropout rates.

Alspaugh’s studies raise an important issue about the cumulative effects of school transitions. Creating more narrowly configured schools in a system increases the number of transitions students must experience during their K-12 careers. Craig Howley (2002), director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools states,

Every transition from one narrowly configured school to another seems to disrupt the social structure in which learning takes place, lowering achievement and participation for many students. Predictably, this damage will be most severe in the cases of students from impoverished backgrounds.

The second assertion from the memo to GBLUES parents – “family involvement appears to be more extensive in schools with wider grade spans than in schools with narrow grade spans” – is also supported by a review of grade-span literature.

Gewertz (2004) reports that school districts across the country, “building on a small body of research and a growing body of anecdotal evidence”, are moving to smaller schools with a wider grade span. One of the benefits cited by school district leaders in New York City, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Philadelphia is an increase in parental involvement when moving to K-8 schools. Moffitt (1996) studied the impact of a district’s elementary grade span structure on family-school partnerships and concluded that schools with narrow grade configurations have a negative impact on family-school partnerships.  Following this line of inquiry, Paglin and Fager (1997) found that narrow grade spans cause frequent student turnover and negatively influence the school’s sense of community. As Renschler (2000) summarized, schools with very narrow grade spans experience frequent student turnover, which can influence the school’s identity and sense of community.

Colorado Commissioner of Education William Moloney (Sanko, 1998) suggested it was time to revisit the concept of elementary schools that teach kindergarten through eighth grade.

“Historically, it's what America was… It really comes down to the things that parents value most - intimacy, the basics, control. Stop and think. It's common sense. If your child is known by every single teacher in the building, if you have a relationship of nine years duration, if you have that kind of focus and intensity, is that not better than when your children are sent to a more distant school with larger numbers?''

Howley (2004), a scholar of rural education, summarizes the research on grade span:

We obviously need additional research on grade span configuration. Existing evidence, however, challenges the de facto policies of 'massification' (always making larger schools and districts as the opportunities arise) and 'developmentally appropriate leveling' (separate schools for primary, elementary, middle, and secondary students).

Howley et al. (2000, 2004) see no particular evidence in the literature to definitively demonstrate that any particular grade-span is better or worse than another.  However, they do find an important link between the literature on grade-span and the literature on school size and student achievement, particularly for lower-income children. Considering school data from four states, they found smaller schools cut the variance in achievement associated with SES by 30-50 percent, depending on grade level. In a similar study, Alspaugh and Gao (2003), comparing Missouri school districts, found a significant decline in student achievement as school enrollments increased, for both inner-city and suburban schools.

Howley (2004) describes his conclusions:

Imagine a district with three school buildings: a K-2 primary center, 3-5 elementary, and a 6-8 middle school or junior high school, each with 300 children. These schools are, in fact, large, with 100 kids per grade (each compares to a K-8 with 900 kids). If, however, the same three buildings were used instead for three K-8 schools, the schools would be a lot smaller-33 kids per grade level. And the reconfiguration would have eliminated two transitions. According to the theory, this change would be predicted to have a good effect on the level and equity of achievement. But the work done by Bickel and me on school size suggests that if this change took place in an impoverished district, we'd predict (not guarantee) additional improvements to the overall achievement level.

Though now almost a decade old, the work of Paglin and Fager (1997) is still widely cited as providing the definitive list of questions that districts should seek to answer when considering grade-span reconfiguration.  These nine questions are:

  1. What will be the cost and length of student travel, particularly in a school district that covers a large area?
  2. Will the distance to the school and the number of schools a family's children attend possibly increase or decrease parent involvement? 
  3. What will be the number of students at each grade level and how may that number affect class groupings and curriculum?
  4. What will be the effect of grade-span on achievement, particularly for grades 6-9?
  5. Will neighborhood schools close or remain open?
  6.  How many school transitions will students make?
  7.  How will opportunities for interaction between age groups be provided?
  8.  How will reconfiguration affect the influence of older students on younger students?
  9.  Is building design suitable for the proposed grade levels?

In summary, it appears that the two assertions in the memo to Luhrs parents are supported by the literature. Achievement does seem to positively correlate with wider grade span, and long-term relationships with families do seem to correlate with higher student achievement. Though some of the conclusions may be generalized from research on middle-level students, such generalization is neither uncommon nor inappropriate.  Further research in this area appears to be on-going and inconclusive (see e.g. Viadero, 2006).

However, just as there is little conclusive research on negative effects of realignment, the evidence that realignment improves learning for children also appears to be largely anecdotal, and not research-based. Absent answers from research, as Paglin and Fager (1997) found in the districts they studied, only the time-consuming work of arriving at satisfactory local answers to critical questions helps to ensure satisfactory local decisions.


Alspaugh, J. W. & Harting, R. D. (1995) Transition effects of school grade-level organization on student achievement. Journal of Research and Development in Education 28(3) 145-149

Alspaugh, J. (1999). The interaction effect of transition grade to high school with gender and grade level upon dropout rates. Paper prepared for the American Educational Research Association. (ED 431066). Downloaded June 1, 2006, from

Alspaugh, J., & Gao, R. (2003). School size as a factor in elementary school achievement.  (ED475062).  Downloaded June 1, 2006, from

Gao, R., & Alspaugh, John W. (2001). The effects of grade level, gender and ethnic background associated with middle school discipline problems and academic achievement. Research in Middle Level Education Quarterly, 24, 35-46.

Gewertz, C. (2004). City districts embracing K-8 schools. May 19, 2004.  Downloaded June 1, 2006 from

Howley, C., Strange, M. & Bickel, R. (2000). Research about school size and school performance in impoverished communities. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools. ED448968.  Downloaded June 1, 2006, from EBSCO Host.

Howley, C. (2002). Grade-span configurations. The School Administrator. March.  Downloaded June 1, 2006, from

Howley, C. (2004). Grade span configurations and reconfigurations: With rural dilemmas in mind. Document available at  Downloaded June 1, 2006.

Lee, V. E. & Smith, J. B. (1993). Effects of school restructuring on the achievement and engagement of middle-grade students. Sociology of Education, 66, 164-187.

Moffitt, T.L..1996). An evaluative study of the impact of elementary grade span structure on family-school partnerships.  Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.

Sanko, J. (1998). Quit building middle schools? Top education official floats idea to legislators.  Rocky Mountain News, December 10, 1998.  Downloaded June 1, 2006 from

Tucker, Charlene G., and Andrada, Gilbert N. (1997). Accountability works: Analysis of performance by grade span of school. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL. (ED 411 278). Downloaded June 1, 2006, from

Pardini, P. (2002).  Revival of the K-8 school.  School Administrator v59 n3 p6-12 Mar 2002. Downloaded June1, 1006, from

Paglin, C., & Fager, J. (1997).  Grade configuration: Who goes where? By Request: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory Hot Topic. July.  Downloaded June 1, 2006, from

Renschler, R (2000). Grade span. Clearinghouse on Educational Policy and Management. Downloaded June 1, 2006 from

Viadero, D. (2006). K-8 structure gives no academic boost, analysis finds., March 1.  Downloaded June 1, 2006 from,+2006&levelId=1000.

Wihry, D., Coladarci, T. and Meadow, C.(1999). Grade span and eighth-grade academic achievement: Evidence from a predominantly rural state. Journal of Research in Rural Education 8, 2: 58—70. (EJ 464 589). Downloaded June 1, 2006, from


vfg said...

I want to add some additional comments from an email Dr. Diller sent me last year when I reached out to him when reconfiguration rumors first started. I think it's both useful and wise:

It seems to me that SASD historically follows the leaders they envy – neighboring districts that are higher-achieving, notably Boiling Springs, have long had grade-level centers. There is little evidence that their achievement has to do with their grade span configuration: achievement of school districts is best predicted by median household income and parents’ educational levels…. Shippensburg lags on both.

As you’ll see in the little paper I wrote a few years ago in response to the brouhaha over my arguments against reconfiguring GBLUES, there is little evidence to support academic benefits from reconfiguring. However, grade span schools are wonderful for ensuring uniformity of delivery: it’s relatively (and that’s an important modifier as the reality is that it is almost impossible) easy to ensure that all teachers are on the same page if you have all of, say, the primary teachers in one building.

At heart, “grade level” is a construct that is quite meaningless. What’s the difference between a 1st grader and a 2nd grader? Between a 2nd grader and a 3rd grader? Anyone who can quantify this difference, or pretends to do so, is a charlatan. There is no developmental or educational reason to do this kind of grouping or regrouping. There are management reasons. Period.

There are beautiful, brave, continuous progress models for elementary education which reflect what educationists know about child development. It is very difficult to do what is known to be best for many kids when they are forced into arbitrary grade-level boxes for 9 months at a go.

Snippety Gibbet said...

It was so wonderful to hear from you, Valerie! I am absolutely stunned to hear that your sweet little girl is now in HIGH SCHOOL???????????? I can only picture her as that sweet little first grader. That is so cool that you are in a P.A. program. I totally can see you as a P.A. I hope that everyone in your family is doing well these days. jan

vfg said...

Crazy, eh? Now that you're retired, maybe M & I can come visit and have a crafter noon with

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