Closing Learning Gaps in Middle School is Crucial to High School Success

November 16, 2018

Middle school success is a key predictor of success in high school. The middle school years lay the foundation for success in high school, yet many students leave middle school underprepared for the rigors of high school work. This lack of readiness has a major impact on student success.

The Impact

Students who leave middle school underprepared for ninth grade will struggle to achieve at grade level. Weak foundations and gaps in prerequisite skills and concepts put many students at risk of course failure in the 9th grade. These weak foundations can trigger a house-of-cards effect. Students who experience early and reinforcing patterns of failure may lose motivation and hope to graduate. Without effective support, they’ll fall further and further behind and become more likely to drop out of school.

  • Ninth graders have more behavior referrals compared to other grade levels.
  • Approximately 22 percent of students repeat a ninth-grade course.
  • More students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school.
  • Students who fail ninth grade are at a high risk of dropping out.


Early Intervention

Identify middle school students with learning gaps quickly and intervene to get them back on grade level before high school. One promising method of support for struggling learners is a Double Dose period supported by a digital curriculum. Effective solutions must have the capacity to assess student mastery of both grade level standards and prerequisite concepts and skills. Data must be delivered back to the teacher and used to drive instruction and to develop learning plans, personalized for individual student mastery, ensuring each student works to remediate their specific learning gaps.

The Achievement Gap

Making the transition from middle to high school is difficult. In middle school, students are often promoted to the next grade-level regardless of their ability to demonstrate mastery of grade-level standards. In high school, when academic workloads increase, students are required to master course standards in order to receive credit and move to the next course in their graduation plan. 

Traditional models of instruction treat all students the same, assuming all students learn in the same way and at the same pace. Consider that many students have missed critical information and are not coming to class with the same levels of mastery. 

The gaps are particularly wide in math and English language arts (ELA). Nationally, 33 percent of eighth-grade students performed at or above proficient on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) mathematics assessments; 35 percent performed at or above proficient on 2017 NAEP reading assessments.

Consequences of the Achievement Gap

Algebra I and English I are gateway courses to high school success. Students underprepared for the concepts and skills taught in these classes often find themselves unable to access and master the standards required to pass the course and receive credit toward graduation.

Achievement correlates with engagement and motivation. Failure can have a detrimental impact. When students fail repeatedly, they may not see a way to recover. They may begin to feel like their hard work isn’t paying off, which can lead them to believe they’ll never succeed no matter what efforts they make. This, in turn, hinders motivation and can keep a student from working to achieve learning goals.

If students aren’t working hard to meet their learning goals, achievement gaps widen. These achievement gaps contribute to declines in graduation and in college and career-readiness. In fact, middle school achievement gaps significantly lower the likelihood that students will graduate at all. For those who do graduate, over 40 percent must take a remedial English or math course before they are eligible to begin college credit-bearing coursework or certificate programs.

Improve Student Outcomes with Personalized Learning

It is possible to support grade-level standards acquisition by remediating learning gaps and increasing grade-level proficiency. However, it is difficult for already overburdened teachers to teach grade-level course content while also providing individualized instruction to remediate learning gaps.

Ease the burden by leveraging a digital curriculum with standards-based assessment and instruction. Tutorials with adaptive remediation support differentiated instruction to meet student needs so that they are prepared for grade-level instruction, enabling struggling students to master both remedial and grade-level content.

When considering a digital curriculum to better prepare middle school students for the rigors of high school coursework, look for solutions with:

  • Prescriptive assessment to identify individual mastery of prerequisite and grade-level standards
  • Actionable data for teachers to monitor learning growth and to drive instruction.
  • Adaptive remediation to personalize learning for each student.
  • Supports to help students close learning gaps. Supports and scaffolding might include:
    • Active learning
    • Age-appropriate content
    • Relevant examples and scenarios
    • Vocabulary supports
    • Formative feedback
    • Actionable data for teachers


Apex Learning Can Help

Apex Learning digital curriculum helps schools ensure that middle school students are performing at grade-level and are ready for high school. Tutorials with adaptive remediation, designed specifically for students in grades 6-8, are proven to increase mastery of grade-level standards. Courses provide equitable access to high quality comprehensive instruction, including math, science, English and social studies. These Courses are courses built specifically for the middle school student attention span, interests, and learning needs. To learn more, visit:

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