The first in an occasional series looking at learning in the middle and high school years

Three seventh-grade girls huddled in a corner of Room 269 at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington County as they attempted the delicate task of critiquing one another's writing. One had found what she considered insufficient information about a literary character another had profiled.

"Does she have a job?"

"Yeah."

"Do you have more details about her job?"

The questions were asked with care, for this was where the social traumas of seventh grade clashed with the national demand for more academic achievement. The students wanted to learn, but they didn't want to become outcasts in the process.

For two decades, policymakers have decreed that seventh grade should be a time when children have a chance to adjust to puberty and cliques and the other annoyances of turning 13. Lessons should be engaging and enriching, middle school advocates have said, but not put too much emphasis on mastering subject matter and passing difficult tests.

That attitude is changing, at Kenmore Middle School and in much of the rest of the country. Middle schools have "overemphasized emotional development at the expense of academic growth," said Mike Riley, superintendent of Bellevue, Wash., schools.

Barbara A. Sposet, a middle grades specialist at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, said that middle schools have done well making instruction relevant to students' lives but that "one of the weaknesses may be the overemphasis of self-esteem."

Riley recalled being told by one middle school principal that "the brain grows in spurts and that during the middle school years, the brain stops growing -- plateaus -- and so kids couldn't really learn much during this period."

Most seventh-grade classrooms in the Washington area do not operate on that premise anymore. Dotsy Fraker and her team of six teachers are pushing their 110 students, half the seventh-graders at Kenmore, to what they hope are new heights of achievement, to be measured next spring by new state tests in reading and math.

Seventh grade remains unlike high school, where scores and grades can have a direct effect on college selection and a student's overall future. But the Kenmore teachers say they are trying to make classes more academically challenging, particularly for students who might have been left behind.

The three girls editing one another's literary profiles were, for instance, in a class for higher-achieving students. Two of them, Fraker said, had not been recommended for the class by their sixth-grade teachers, but Fraker recently put them and four others in the class because they read well and seemed ready.

A few of the newly accelerated students had difficulty finishing their assignments, Fraker said. But she noted with satisfaction that the two new students in the corner of the room were working at the same speed as most of the class.

"I believe that middle schools should provide academic rigor," Kenmore Principal John Word said. "The challenge for us as middle school educators in the age of high stakes testing is to encourage teaching for understanding while addressing the myriad of social and emotional issues."

Much of the seventh-grade achievement pressure is focused on mathematics, and Kenmore math teacher Emily Henry is preparing many students for what used to be a high school course: Algebra I.

Word said he expects more than 55 percent of this year's seventh-graders to have completed first-year algebra when they finish eighth grade, compared with 25 percent nationally. At Kenmore, 16 seventh-graders are taking algebra. The push to accelerate math instruction seems to have had a national effect. The National Assessment of Educational Progress test, a common measure of academic performance, shows that 13-year-olds had an average math score of 281 in 2004, up from 270 in 1990. English scores, on the other hand, are almost unchanged, from 257 in 1990 to 259 in 2004.

Fraker's team also has three teachers specializing in learning-disabled and limited-English students, as well as science teacher Jim Haile, who enjoys the shiny computer labs in Kenmore's brand-new building, and social studies teacher Lilo Stephens, who uses a $2,140 interactive whiteboard and LCD projector to show students historical documents on the lives of African American sharecroppers after the Civil War.

Still, higher-level classes and improved test scores are only part of teaching seventh-graders. Some experts, such as Thomas B. Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn Jr. and University of Washington research professor Paul T. Hill, support keeping kindergarten through eighth grade in the same school, so seventh-graders can make steady progress and not have to adjust to a new school with other easily distracted pre-adolescents.

At KIPP DC: Key Academy, a charter middle school of fifth through eighth grades in Southeast Washington, seventh-graders are called "juniors " to mimic the terminology of high school and college and are given much to do. "In seventh grade, our students read 'To Kill A Mockingbird,' 'The Skin I'm In' and 'Romeo and Juliet' as a class," Principal Sarah Hayes said. "In addition, they read an average of 40 independent reading books during the year" and take the first half of Algebra I, as well as Spanish, orchestra and computers.

Despite the heavier load, seventh-graders have ways of asserting their budding independence. In the corner of Room 269 at Kenmore, one of the girls working on the editing assignment asked another, "Don't you need to separate your paragraphs?"

"I just don't like doing it that way, that's why," her classmate said.

Science teacher Jim Haile uses computers to instruct seventh-graders at Arlington's Kenmore Middle School, which has increased the rigor of its courses.