New Report Challenges Middle Schools to Improve Rigor

A new report by the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) issued a challenge to middle schools across the southeast: stop acting like a “way station for adolescents,” and start preparing students for success in rigorous high school courses.  A New Mission for the Middle Grades offers a roadmap for change, with six goals and several specific recommendations, including focusing the middle grades curriculum on literacy and STEM disciplines, and requiring middle grades students to complete individual academic and career plans.

SREB research found that too many of the region’s 8th graders enter high school without the basic skills necessary to take and pass high school level courses. Unless middle schools improve teaching and learning, the report argues, students will remain unprepared for high school, and states like Alabama will be unable to significantly decrease their high school dropout rates.

SREB is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with sixteen member states across the southeast, including Alabama,  to improve public education from pre-k to college. This new middle-grades report argues that states must improve middle school education now or “risk creating a generation of high school students ill-prepared for the 21st century and its changing work force demands.”

Middle Schools are the Key to Work Force and College Readiness
The new report found that only 75% of ninth graders in the SREB region graduate on time, and only 50% attend college by the age of 19. These percentages, coupled with the rising demand for jobs that require a college education, indicate that many SREB states are creating a future workforce that will be insufficient to meet the demands of a 21st century economy.

According to the report, middle schools are the “make or break” point for improving work place and college readiness, but middle schools are graduating students without the basic skills required to succeed in high school and beyond. In the SREB states, just 28% of eighth graders scored at or above proficient in NAEP’s reading exam, and 29% scored that well in math.

Among teachers, only 34% reported that preparing students for college preparatory classes in high school is their primary mission, while 53% reported that preparing “almost all students with the academic knowledge and skills needed” for college prep classes in high school was very important.

These numbers must improve before states can see major improvements in graduation rates and college attendance.

Improving Middle School Teaching and Learning in Alabama
In Alabama, the statistics are even more alarming. According to Education Week, only 69.9% of Alabama’s ninth graders graduate on time. Only 20% of Alabama’s eighth graders scored at or above proficient on NAEP’s math exam, while 26% scored that well in reading.

To improve student achievement in middle school, SREB recommends that member states adopt a framework that achieves the following goals:

  1. Communicates and clarifies the mission in every middle grades school
  2. Focuses the middle grade curriculum on literacy and the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math)
  3. Identifies middle grade students likely to drop out of school and intervenes
  4. Requires middle grades students to complete individual academic and career plans
  5. Redesigns professional development for middle grades educators
  6. Holds districts and schools accountable for meeting the middle grades mission

Already, Alabama has adopted some practices and programs that conform to SREB’s six goals. In particular, AMSTI and A+ College Ready’s “Laying the Foundation” programs both promote STEM competence in middle school. ARI has a  middle-grade focus as well. These three programs work together to focus middle grade learning on literacy and STEM disciplines, as specified in Goal #2.
Alabama is also making headway in SREB Goal #4. Beginning in 2010, every eighth grade student in Alabama participates in the ACT Explore test. This test provides students and parents with information about progress toward college and career readiness and helps students plan for their future with high school course planning.

Click here to read the full report, A New Mission for the Middle Grades.