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Advancing the Middle Ground

Is eighth grade the new 10th grade? With students facing pre-AP classes and choosing majors, it’s looking more and more that way.


By Mary Ellen Flannery

The conversation starts like this: Have you heard about Saddam’s death sentence? And then it takes off like a dog track rabbit.

“Personally, I’m for the death penalty. I think if you kill somebody, you should be killed.”

“Yeah, but hanging? Why can’t they do that thing where they put those things on their head? And then they power it?”

“You mean, electrocution? Well, because when we did that in Florida, people were catching on fire!”

“Ooooh!” they cry, shaking their prom hair and stomping their Vans on the tiled floor. They are, after all, just eighth-graders and the thought of heads on fire is simply too thrilling. They deconstruct. They giggle. One of them, Lianna Llewellyn, simply puts her head on her desk and silently laughs.

This particular class at the Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, Florida, is a history class where dates don’t seem to matter much. “When I see you again, we’re going to talk about what we should do in the face of a witch hunt,” says Jay Lowe, a National Board Certified Teacher. “Should you sit there with your finger up your nose?”

Is this the typical middle school American history class? Nope. But it wouldn’t be atypical in a high school, especially an Advanced Placement class, where higher-level thinking trumps memorization. And that’s exactly what Lowe and his colleagues had in mind when they put it together this year. This is “pre-AP” history, which sets up for ninth-grade AP geography (which, in turn, sets up for three more years of AP history and a great-looking college application.) And, while it might not be typical eighth-grade fare now, don’t be surprised to see it on the menu at your middle school soon.

With middle school test scores sagging, colleges complaining about remediation rates, parents praying for the Ivy League, and state and national policymakers worried about job readiness and global competitiveness, academic rigor is in. Eighth grade has become the new 10th grade.

In fact, by eighth grade, ongoing education research shows students already are accelerating on the road to college—or completely derailed, says Cynthia Schmeiser, president of well-known assessment company ACT’s education division. Even scarier? “It may be that eighth grade is too late,” she adds.

With that in mind, lawmakers across the country are moving to make sure that their eighth-graders are well on the road to college. In one of his final acts, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a new law requiring middle school to offer at least one high school level course. Even more novel, the new law also requires eighth-graders to choose a “major,” or intended career, like landscape operations, theater arts, or even teaching assistant.

In Arkansas, middle schools are going through the process of classifying all of their classes as either “regular” or “pre-AP,” while high schools begin to offer only “pre-AP” and “AP.” And nearby in Oklahoma, teachers are busily applying themselves to state grants for free training in pre-AP preparation.

So when Lianna Llewellyn stops laughing and picks her head up off her desk, she’ll go on to fill it with algebra, second-year Spanish, language arts (they’re reading the Old English poem Beowulf), and chamber music for string quartets. All are high school classes.

Later, a friend will complain to her, “Mr. Lowe was making fun of me! I said these were all big words and he was like, ‘Welcome to fourth grade.’”

Eighth grade is much harder.

For decades, educators have wondered what to do with kids like Lianna. Just a few years ago, they were writing letters to Santa Claus; in a few more years, they’ll be writing to college admissions officers. For now, they’re stuck in the middle. Ask a middle school teacher why she loves her job and she might tell you, I have completely different students every day. Every hour. Every minute! They change before her eyes.

“I am a middle school teacher by choice,” says Kathy Heller of Arkansas. “I’ve taught college. I’ve taught the younger ones. I like the hormonally challenged….They’re not cynical high-schoolers, and they’re not ‘I want to hang onto you and wipe my nose.’

“Their minds are just full and inquisitive.”

So, it’s interesting. But, for decades, it’s been challenging, too. Test scores never have been particularly high in early-adolescent grades, as teachers compete with so many personal distractions for student attention. For decades, in the name of improvement, middle schools have experienced near constant “reform”—but nothing seems to have worked as expected.

In 1989, the Carnegie Foundation issued Turning Points, its acclaimed report calling for smaller, more cohesive learning communities, cooperative learning between kids of varying abilities, more teacher education geared specifically to pre-adolescents, better connections between communities and schools, and more. It called for replacing the traditional “junior high” concept with the “middle school” philosophy and its recognition that, developmentally and emotionally, these kids aren’t just smaller high school students. With that, many campuses switched mostly to grades 6 through 8 and embraced team approaches to teaching.

At that time, eighth-graders scored an average 257 points (out of 500) in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Ten years later, after widespread change based on Carnegie’s recommendations, they scored all of two points higher.

And while test scores aren’t everything, they are often the impetus for reform. It’s not surprising then, with scores remaining virtually unmoved, that in 2005 the conservative Fordham Institute released its own hot-tempered call for change, Mayhem in the Middle, driven by No Child Left Behind-style standards and written by Florida’s new Chancellor of K–12 Education, Cheri Pierson Yecke. Among other changes, it demands a return to old-fashioned K–8. More discipline. Less coddling!

It concludes, not surprisingly: “It is time for a thorough reform of middle grade education, including a new focus on high standards, discipline, and accountability for student achievement.”

And so, the pendulum swings.


But here’s one thing that stays the same.

Eighth-graders…they are not like us.

Overheard at lunch:

“People scare me.”

“So, like why are you around us?”

“Because you’re not PEOPLE!”

After waiting years and years for proper documents, Lianna Llewellyn and her family moved to South Florida from Jamaica three years ago, when Lianna was 9. “There are so many resources here that people take for granted,” she says. “In Jamaica, we would be happy to have textbooks.”

She’s a serious student, a first violinist in the school orchestra, and the kind of girl who prefers physics to Phat. Here’s what she likes: Fantasy novels, like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series— “Because, in a fantasy book, anything could happen. Regular fiction is too predictable.” Here’s what she doesn’t like: Negative political advertising—“They don’t actually say what they stand for.”

Her friends play the cello and viola. One just earned a detention—her third in just three months—for “excessive laughing” during class. (What happens during detention? Lianna wouldn’t know. “I’ve never had one,” she says flatly.) Another classmate offers this bit of wisdom during history: “Technically, the whole idea of communism isn’t bad… it’s that they never realized their ideals.”

Overheard at lunch:

“Did you know ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary?”

“What? Oh. Ha-ha.”

Basically, we’re talking about good kids, right? Great kids, actually, at a supportive middle school—the kind that embraced all of the touchy-feely community talk years back, but still manages to stay at the very top of Florida’s academic measurements. (Although students don’t need to meet any academic benchmarks to attend Bak Middle, they do participate in art auditions, a process that probably weeds out the recalcitrant.) As their work becomes more demanding, though, students say it does wear on them.

To manage her increasing workload, Lianna lugs a nylon backpack that threatens to pull her down the up staircase. It weighs more than the average prekindergartner and holds five workbooks, a music folder stuffed with notes from Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, and a 3-inch-thick three-ring binder that eats paper. “I’m going to see a doctor this week,” she says indignantly. “For my back!”

Also indispensable: A business-style day planner filled with notes on science fair deadlines, homework assignments, and concert dates.

“I can’t live without my planner. I lost it for like a day and…it wasn’t good,” she says.

She runs from class to class, upstairs and down, with one brief bathroom break a day. Rather than waste time on cafeteria lines, she makes her own ham and cheese on white, grabs a healthy granola bar from her kitchen cabinet, and sits outside in the Florida-style courtyard.

Overheard at lunch:

“OK, why is my cheese like that? Why does it have shoe marks in it? Hey! Who stepped on my cheese?!”

Lianna’s older sister is a high school senior applying to the best of the best: Harvard and Stanford. “Yeah, they are good, but I don’t like Harvard. It’s so gray and dull,” Lianna says.

Her plans would take her to a college in a more rural setting and then medical school. “I’d like to be a doctor,” she says. And then, as a friend approaches, she adds, “Doctors are cool, right?” “Yeah,” her friend answers. “I’d say they’re a… what’s the word? A necessity of life!”

Lianna is lucky. She’s on track to wear that white doctor’s coat. But many eighth-graders are not, according to education research. And, chances are, they’ll never be able to climb back up.

“If they weren’t college-ready by eighth grade, they didn’t make it,” ACT’s Schmeiser says of the assessment company’s research. “There was nothing they could do. That’s scary. Really scary.”

To be considered “college-ready” by ACT, eighth-graders need to meet specific benchmarks in reading, math, English, and science, and ACT sets those marks based on the success rates and histories of current college students. A scant 13 percent of last year’s eighth-graders made the grade in all four subjects. Just 37 percent hit the target in math, and 43 percent in reading. “This suggests earlier is better—earlier intervention, earlier identification,” Schmeiser warns.

In the contemporary world of competitive preschool and increasingly selective college admissions, nobody wants their child to be too late for anything. In 2005, when some southern Illinois parents learned—at a spaghetti dinner, no less—that students at other area middle schools were taking algebra in eighth grade, they pressed for the same opportunity.

“We were [all], ‘Oh my goodness,’” one parent told the Peoria Journal Star. “This is about being behind. And, frankly, that [is] not in our plan.”

That’s not in the plan of state and national policymakers either. When President Bush called for more Advanced Placement classes and more rigorous math and science in last year’s State of the Union Address, he was talking about a competitive curriculum that starts in middle school.

At least one state governor already has responded—his little brother, the former Florida governor. His final laws requiring more rigorous middle school math and majors are intended to make school more relevant. But many teachers argue it forces students to make ridiculously early commitments to a specific academic or vocational direction. Most preteens haven’t been exposed to enough career choices to make that kind of decision, explains Tampa teacher Evelyn Butts.

While Florida may be taking the lead, governors all over the country are jumping aboard the rigors bandwagon—often led by their own non-profit organization, Achieve Inc., a partnership between governors and business leaders that’s also called for rising academic standards. By eighth grade, according to their benchmarks, students should be able to try this on for size: What is the set of points (x,y) that satisfies both 5x – y ≥  3 and 2x – 4y < 1? (For the answer, see page 29.)

In Arkansas, where pre-AP classes are proliferating, Heller, a pre-AP algebra and geometry teacher at Lakewood Middle School in North Little Rock, is now training colleagues all over the country on pre-AP strategies. (A taste of her wisdom: “Pre-AP is not more of something; it’s making it deeper and richer.”)

As an incentive to increase rigor, Arkansas provides $650 state grants to teachers for pre-AP or AP training from the College Board or Board-trained teachers. The College Board’s “Pre-AP Initiative” is all about training teachers for active, high-level learning, but the Board itself frowns upon schools labeling classes as “pre-AP,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Topiel. The Board fears that students without “pre-AP” under their belt may become discouraged from taking AP courses in high school, she says.

In Oklahoma, as part of its 2006 “equity plan,” the state also is providing free pre-AP training to teachers, particularly in high-poverty, low-performing schools. And these kinds of efforts are working, Heller says—more kids are taking those classes and doing well on them. (Better than well, actually. At Lakewood Middle, 98 percent of students passed the state’s end-of-year algebra exam.)

But is it reasonable to expect (as do many policymakers) that all eighth-graders should take algebra or pre-AP classes? Maybe someday, teachers say. After we cure drug addiction, provide affordable housing to all families, and eradicate poverty. But, in the meantime, perhaps the pendulum is swinging too far.

Consider Lianna’s mother, Sonia Llewellyn, an attorney turned reading teacher at another South Florida middle school. It’s only about 12 miles from Lianna’s school and its high-powered students, but worlds away by other measurements.

Sonia’s students are 10 times more likely not to speak English, four times more likely to fail the state’s reading test, and four times more likely to live in poverty. While less than 1 percent of Lianna’s classmates will miss three weeks of school this year, according to the Florida Department of Education, nearly a quarter of her mother’s students will disappear for at least that long.

But Heller maintains that pre-AP can work at any middle school, and it especially benefits the kids who might otherwise be counted out. (At her school, about a third of the students take free or reduced-price lunch, and nearly 40 percent are Black.) The key, Heller says, is this: Teachers must be appropriately trained, and they really need to want to do it. “It takes a lot of time for me to write tests and to grade them—because it’s not just ‘Add these two numbers.’ It’s ‘Here’s the situation and how are you going to handle it? Draw a picture, show me how you came to this conclusion, defend your answer.’”

At her school, every teacher, regardless of whether they teach pre-AP classes, has been trained in the new strategies. “I’d love to see it work like this everywhere, especially in places where you have minority kids falling through the cracks.

“A pre-AP friend of mine from Oklahoma says it’s like putting a chicken in the oven. Everybody wants to try it, and you can’t say no, it’s just for you or you.”

“Today we’re going to be relating graphs to real-world events,” announces Lianna’s algebra teacher, Anthony Napoleon, another National Board Certified Teacher. His students take out their notebooks, slide open their calculators, and wait for the buzz of the overhead projector.

Here it is: A graph that shows the average person’s height. Why doesn’t it start at the very bottom of the Y axis? “Babies aren’t zero inches!” a student calls out. And what about this flat part, stretching across the top? Yep, the grown-up years.

“If this graph were to continue through adulthood, it would probably go down again—around your 60s—when you start to shrink,” Napoleon offers.

Quiet snorts. People shrink?

Algebra is the hallmark of a pre-college eighth-grade curriculum. Take it now, and you’ll likely be shaking the college president’s hand in eight more years. But it also illustrates the perils of the new eighth grade. It’s hard! In districts where all eighth-graders were once required to take it, failure rates skyrocketed.

“Piaget would roll over in his grave,” one teacher mutters about the increasing number of eighth-graders forced into her algebra classes. The French psychologist, famous for his theories on the stages of cognitive development, believed children begin to think abstractly (a must-have skill for algebra) sometime between 12 and adulthood. By eighth grade, some are there. Some aren’t.

This is what math teachers are talking about when they say “it finally clicked” for a student. “A light goes off,” says Tony Bucco, a Northern Virginia middle school math teacher with 20 years of experience. “It happens at different points, and it’s probably tied to a student’s cognitive development.”

In Palm Beach County, where Lianna goes to school, administrators experimented in 2004 with requiring all eighth-graders to take algebra—over the recommendations of math teachers still waiting for universal “clicking.” It was an experiment that too many failed, either because they weren’t developmentally ready or appropriately prepared. (Now about half take algebra.) Napoleon recalls teaching a “support class” for the lowest performers that year. “I had kids who didn’t understand that there are four 5s in 20. So how do we expect them to get 4x = 20?”

Today, Lianna has no problem with much more complicated equations. “Let’s look at some homework problems,” Napoleon says. “Yes, Tyler?”

“Why is there no solution to No. 12?” (It reads: –3.2 = |8p|.)

“Good question: Why is there no solution?”

“Absolute value can never be negative,” Lianna says, quickly raising her hand.

“That’s right.”

When done sensibly (i.e., not forcing every preteen John and Jane into quadratic equations, regardless of previous preparation), increased enrollment in middle-school algebra can work well. A decade ago, Virginia’s Bucco counted 12 eighth-grade math classes at his middle school, including about five in algebra. Now, nine algebra classes serve about half of all eighth-graders, screened by pretests. And still, his passing rate on Virginia’s end-of-year algebra test was 100 percent last year.

In nearby suburban Maryland, it’s not just algebra growing at an exponential rate, but geometry. In 2004, the number of Maryland middle school students who passed the state’s geometry exam was 4,246, almost double the 2,246 in 2003. (And that means they took algebra in seventh grade.)

On the whole, the increased participation by middle-school students in test-your-brain math is a good thing, Bucco says, especially when they’re appropriately prepared. Why, he asks, shouldn’t kids be given more opportunities to succeed?

But at this age, success means many different things.

Overheard in the hallway:

“I’m taking a break from dating?”

“Guys or girls?”


Quick quiz: What percentage of middle-schoolers has had sex? Answer: About 20 percent. (And a third had lain on a bed or couch with somebody “they liked” in the previous three months, according to a National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy report.)

Other complex issues threaten. Adolescent depression rates are soaring dangerously. According to the National Mental Health Association, up to one in five teens may suffer from clinical depression, and their rate of suicide has nearly tripled since 1960. (It’s now the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds.) And anorexia—the life-threatening eating disorder—is the third most common illness for preteen and teenage girls.

Overheard during Spanish class:

“Did you see J. Lo in that movie?” “Yeah.”

“Wasn’t she skinny?” “Yeah.”

“My brother saw it and he said she was so fat, and I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

And, of course, there are drugs. Paul Strauss, a Phoenix teacher who blogs about his eighth-grade class at www.strausser.blogspot. com, recently asked his students if they knew a 13- or 14-year-old who’d already tried drugs. “Conservatively, I would say that 80 percent of my 140 students raised their hands,” he says. “I told them (and this is true) the biggest scandal that happened my eighth-grade year was somebody caught smoking a cigarette behind the gym! It is sooo scary how fast these kids are being forced to grow up.”

With early-adolescents facing escalating social pressures, it should be no surprise that some teachers are wary about embracing wholeheartedly the new rigorous regimen. They don’t want to sacrifice the special support they believe their kids need. (One middle-school principal put it this way: Number one, my job is to keep them safe.)

It’s all about balance, says Sondra Cooney, a former teacher who led the Southern Regional Education Board’s middle grades initiative until 2002. “The most impressive results come from schools where they pair that no-excuses attention to academics with social support.”

After all, they’re still kids. Consider Lianna. When she and her friends are feeling really wacky during rehearsals for their strings quartet, they switch musical instruments. Lianna picks up Colleen’s viola. Even crazier, Connor gives up his cello for an eensy-weensy violin, which he sits upright on the chair, between his khaki-clad legs, as if it’s a shrunken cello.

“This is terrible! I cannot read alto clef!” Lianna cries, stumbling over the viola’s alto lines, her bow hand shaking from hysterical laughs. “No, really, this is crazy! We can’t do this!”

“It’s great!” Colleen crows, as she attacks the dynamic soprano line of Pirates of the Caribbean. Meanwhile, Connor grins wildly. “What in the world are you doing?” cries a classmate, as she walks into the quartet’s practice room. “Oh my God, this I’ve got to hear!”

With little preparation, it’s chaos. Pure chaos. But then, they concentrate. They hear a few good notes. They smile. And, for just a few bars, it’s really good music. 


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