John Hood’s column today is on education, and specifically how school choice makes it easier for parents to avoid the “middle-school plunge” by having their children in schools that run from kindergarten through 8th grade:

Are there educational benefits from expanding the use of K-8 public schools? A recent study by two education researchers suggests an answer in the affirmative. Martin West of Harvard University and Guido Schwerdt of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research in Germany examined student-performance data for Florida public schools from 2000-01 to 2008-09. Florida offered an interesting test case because some students proceed to middle schools in sixth grade and some in seventh grade, while others remain in K-8 schools.

Their study is complex and deserves a full reading. Here’s the key finding, however. Everything else being held equal, transferring to middle school results in large and lasting disadvantages for students. “After three years in middle school, students who entered in sixth grade score 0.23 standard deviations in math and 0.14 standard deviations in reading worse than we would have expected had they attended a K-8 school. After two years in a middle school, students who entered in seventh grade underperform by 0.31 standard deviations in math and 0.15 standard deviations in reading.”

To put this finding in perspective, students in sixth and seventh grade typically increase their math performance by 0.30 standard deviations per year and their reading performance by 0.25 standard deviations per year. In other words, the negative effects of the middle-school plunge represent several months worth of learning.