Students face traumatic transition from middle school into high school

Matt Swayne
October 23, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Making a transition from middle school to high school is linked to friendship shake-ups among students and may also increase the likelihood of long-lasting academic and personal struggles, according to a team of sociologists.

In a study of more than 14,000 students, researchers examined the effects of changing from middle school to high school between 8th and 9th grade on adolescent friendship popularity and school grades. They found that those who change schools have fewer friends and are significantly less likely to earn higher grades as compared to those who remain in the same school during 8th and 9th grade. More concerning for the researchers is that many students did not seem to rebound from this transition during high school.

"The surprising finding is that these penalties lasted throughout secondary school," said the study’s lead author, Penn State Professor Diane Felmlee. "The school shift occurs between eighth and ninth grade and the penalties — losing friends, becoming more isolated, and suffering a cost to grades — last through 12th grade."

Previous research has shown that the number of friends people have in high school may affect their health and wages later in life, Felmlee added.

Awareness of the effect of school transitions may be helpful to students, parents and educators, according to the researchers.

"One of our concerns is that people may not be aware of the serious costs associated with school transitions," said Felmlee. "For example, some adolescents may believe that they are the only ones who struggle when they transition to a new school in 9th grade, rather than realize that this is a common pattern experienced by most other teens. It’s also important for educators and parents to be informed about the common, detrimental consequences of secondary school transitions, so that they can aid in addressing these problems."

According to the study, students who changed to a new school between middle and high school also were more likely to report no friendships with their school peers, said Felmlee. This type of social isolation is associated with poor health, low self-worth and suicidal ideation, according to previous research.

Students who attend school districts with multiple middle schools that feed into a single high school — multi-feeder districts — incurred greater costs, according to the researchers. For example, students in multi-feeder districts experienced a 61 percent greater decrease in the chance of getting high grades — As and Bs — compared to other types of schools.

The researchers, who report their findings in a recent issue of Sociology of Education, did find that a small minority of students fared better after the transition. They suggest that these students might see the switch as an opportunity for a new start.

"This group — and it's a small group — tended to be the ones who weren't flourishing in terms of friends and grades earlier," said Felmlee.

The researchers used data from Promoting School-Community Partnerships to Enhance Resilience — PROSPER — which tracked more than 50 friendship networks from 6th to 12th grade. The study included data from 14,462 students in 26 rural and small-city school districts.

"While there have been some studies on how the change from middle to high school influences youth, there haven't been many studies employing big data sets with 'control school districts,' that is, schools in which students do not make a structural transition during those years," said Felmlee. "This gave us a unique opportunity to follow a large number of students over time, and to compare those who changed school locations between 8th and 9th grades with those who remained in the same school during this same period."

The first wave of students entered the PROSPER study in 2002. Participants took self-administered surveys in the fall and spring of their sixth grade and then in the spring of each year between seventh and 12th grades. To establish friendship networks among the students, participants were asked to identify their best and closest friends in their school grade.

Cassie McMillan and Paulina Inara Rodis, both doctoral candidates in the department of sociology and criminology, and D. Wayne Osgood, professor emeritus of sociology and criminology, also worked with Felmlee on the study.

The W.T. Grant Foundation, the National Institute of Drug Abuse and the National Science Foundation supported this work.

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Last Updated October 25, 2018