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Grade Configuration: Who Goes Where?

K-3? K-8? 5-8? 7-8? How about a ninth-grade-only learning center? What is the best grade configuration for a school? A report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory looks at schools of every configuration!

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What is the ideal grade configuration? Is the ideal a K-5 elementary school followed by a 6-8 middle school and a four-year high school? Or is a K-8 elementary school a better solution? Which grades should a middle school include? 5-8? 6-8? 7-8? 7-9?

Grade configuration, and its wide range of options, is the subject of a "hot topic" report from the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL). The report, Grade Span Configuration: Who Goes Where?, takes a case study approach to the issue. It looks at eight different schools with seven different grade configurations. It focuses on the communities' reasons for establishing those spans, and some of the benefits and drawbacks of each approach.

Drawing on available research, the report concludes that the effectiveness of grade groupings varies from community to community, school to school. Rural districts, for example, may prefer to keep middle graders in the elementary school to bolster community identity while an urban school may want to minimize the influence of older students by middle school groupings of six through eight, or seven through nine, or some other combination. The report cites one finding that seventh- or eighth-graders in the United States attend schools with about 30 different grade spans!

This report is intended as food-for-thought. It's intended to be one resource for administrators, school boards, concerned parents, and others interested in the subject of grade configuration. The report includes an extensive list of resources for anyone interested in an in-depth exploration of the issue.


Many factors must be taken into consideration when deciding which grade configuration best suits the needs of any community. Among the considerations are:

  • Number of students
  • Transportation costs
  • Socioeconomic status of the student population
  • School system goals for student achievement
  • Effects on other schools
  • Number of transitions for affected students
  • School building layout/design
  • Effects on parent involvement

NWREL's report includes a laundry list of questions tied to those considerations. Anyone involved in establishing a grade-span configuration for a new school or reorganizing the configuration of an existing school should take a look at that list of questions and at an accompanying list of "tips for implementation."


Grade Span Configuration: Who Goes Where? includes a "sampler" of observations from schools of different grade spans around the Northwest. The eight schools range in student population from the 82-student Elk City (Idaho) School, a K-10 school, to Seattle's 1,200-student Eckstein Middle School. The school descriptions focus on information that includes:

  • How the school's grade span came about
  • How the school is structured to meet the needs of the particular grades it contains
  • Potential weaknesses or problems of the grade span and how the school addresses them
  • Learning opportunities offered by the grade span and how the school takes advantage of them
  • Activities to facilitate transitions from the previous school or to the next school in the K-12 sequence
  • Observed outcomes and keys to success

The schools included in the sampler are:

School Name

Girdwood Elementary School Girdwood, Alaska K-8
Elk City School Elk City, Idaho K-10
Monforton School Bozeman, Montana K-8
Damascus Middle School Boring, Oregon 5-8
Hollyrod Elementary School Portland, Oregon K-3
Oregon City High School Oregon City, Oregon 9 only
Eckstein Middle School Seattle, Washington 6-8
Komachin Middle School Lacey, Washington 7-8


Grade Configuration: Who Goes Where?
What is the best configuration of grades for K-12 schooling? Is it an elementary school, followed by a middle school, followed by a four-year high school? Or are there advantages to a K-8 school, followed by a four-year high school? Which middle-school configuration better promotes social adjustment?...

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 09/08/1997
Links last updated 09/24/2005