University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Building transitions lead to lower value-added growth for middle-school students

In The View from the OEP on April 6, 2022 at 1:18 pm

Today’s blog is written by Kathryn Barnes, a Graduate Researcher in OEP and former middle school teacher.

Picture this: It’s back to school open house and your student is making a big move from a small elementary school to the middle school. What questions do you think your student will ask the teacher?  in my experience as a former middle school teacher, no student or parent asks questions about curriculum or standardized tests.  Their questions revolve around things like schedules, locker combinations, class sizes, sports, transportation, and school lunches.  Open houses shed light on the idea that when school transitions take place, learning might not be the sole focus of students.

School transitions can present students with an overwhelming number of changes.  It almost seems expected that a transition to a new school building might have an impact on learning.  Educators who work with students during transition grades are cautioned to watch for changes in students learning.  Several studies have been done that show that transition years can negatively impact student achievement, however, no studies examine the effects of a transition years on student growth.  Our study seeks to answer the following question: Do students demonstrate lower academic growth after a transition to a new school building?

Growth vs. Proficiency 

To educators, the debate of growth versus proficiency is just as famous as the rivalry between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (only educators are still waiting on a catchy musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda).  The simplest way to describe the difference between the two sounds like a quote from Jerry Garcia:  Proficiency is about the destination while growth is about the journey.

Proficiency: Proficiency is about a reaching level of achievement at a certain point in time. More specifically, proficiency is achievement that is considered “good enough” for that point in time.  Think about end of year standardized tests.  A student is proficient if they are at grade level.

Growth: Growth focuses on learning over time.  There is a greater emphasis placed on how much students learn over the course of the year, rather than what they can demonstrate at the end of the year.  A student who has high growth, but low achievement might not be at grade level but increased their math skills from a 2nd grade level to a 4th grade level in once school year. 

Here at OEP, we love using student growth as a metric for success.  Check out some of our other blog posts on this topic here and here.  

Our Study

In Arkansas, individual school districts make the decision about what grade levels require a transition to a new school building.  The table below shows the number of schools that make transitions at certain grades.  At 7th grade, for example, in 167 schools, students attend a different school building than they did for 6th grade.

Count of Arkansas Schools by Transition Year, 2020-21
3rd4th5th6th7th8th9th10th
Transition291972841671812033
Non-Transition456460375270157302190268
Total485479447354324320310301

To examine the difference in grade-level value added growth scores for students who transitioned to a new school compared to students who did not, we used publicly available mathematics and English language arts (ELA) grade-level value-added growth data for grades 3-10. The initial comparisons in grade-level value-added growth scores between transition years and non-transition years for the 2020-21 school year are shown in the graphs below.


After seeing these results graphically, we thought, “Hmmm. I wonder if there is a way to predict the value-added growth scores during a transition year.” Well, thanks to econometrics, there is a way to do this!  Using five years’ worth of data, we ran a regression analysis to predict school grade-level growth scores given specific student characteristics.  We conducted this analysis for the following student populations: White students, Black Students, students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (a proxy for low socioeconomic status), and the combined student population. 

Our analysis returned results that were mostly not statistically significant, which ideally, is the result that we would want to see.  The exception were our results from 6th and 7th grade.  Most of the estimates from 6th and 7th grade over the span of 5 school years were statistically significant.  The results showed that a transition in the 6th and 7th grade is associated with a decrease in value added growth scores compared to students who do not transition.  In layman’s terms, our results tell us that based on past data, student groups who transition upwards to a new school in either the 6th or 7th grade show less growth when compared to 6th and 7th grade students who did not change buildings.  These results are similar for both math and ELA.   This can be concerning because, if you recall from the table earlier, 7th grade is the most common transition year in Arkansas. For more information, please refer to the full paper.   

Moving Forward

Our findings from this study indicate that policymakers and school district leaders should pay special attention to 6th and 7th grade students that experience a building transition. While overall trends do not indicate a substantial difference in value-added growth scores, students in the 6th and 7th grade who transition do show less growth compared to their peers who do not transition.  Based on our findings, we would recommend deploying an age appropriate and research-informed program to be implemented during schools that transition in the 6th or 7th grade that focus on academic and social-emotional health of young adolescents.  Examples of successful programs could provide activities that involve students, parents, teachers, counselors, and staff from the former to the transition school.  The goals of these programs would be to encourage collaboration among school stakeholders such as teachers, students, and families, to encourage school leaders to focus on concerns of middle level transitions, and to create a sustainable program that shows positive results over years.  Policymakers might suggest program evaluations focusing on schools with positive value-added growth scores during transitions to see if best practices can be identified and replicated throughout the state.

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