Research Validates 9th Grade “On Track” Work

In 2007, Chicago schools started an aggressive push to put ninth graders “on track” for graduation. That meant tackling the early warning indicators linked to dropout rate, such as course failure and poor attendance.

New research released today show that concentrated efforts with ninth graders at 20 public high schools led to higher graduation rates three years later. The results of the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research study suggest that paying attention to these “on track” indicators can turn around the prospects for struggling students.

Essentially, the monitoring and support in ninth grade inoculated many students from problems in 10th and 11th grade and kept them in school through graduation.  As more Chicago high schools have started the adopting this approach, the percentage of on-track ninth graders has increased from 57 to 82 percent, according to Preventable Failure: Improvements in Long-Term Outcomes when High Schools Focused on the Ninth Grade Year.

The on-track validation study was accompanied by another report, Free to Fail or On-Track to College, that looks at why student so many students fall off track in ninth grade. Attendance is a big piece of the picture. The report states:

Chicago chart“As students move into high school, attendance and study habits significantly decline. Students miss almost three times as many days of school in ninth grade as in eighth grade. This increase is primarily driven by an explosion in the number of unexcused absences, which is nearly four times larger in ninth grade than in eighth grade. In 2008-09, the typical ninth-grader missed 27 days of school, with 21.4 of those days due to unexcused absences.”

Talking to students, researchers got the impression that some considered attendance optional in high school classes. Here are a couple of examples:

[In ninth grade] you have a choice either to go to class or you don’t go to class, and nobody’s going to be on you to go to your classes in high school. But in [eighth grade] you can’t do nothing, you just go to class and that’s it.

In [elementary school]…you still walk around in groups, you walk in a line. In [high school] you just walk. It’s your choice to go to lunch or English or all those classes. In [elementary school] you gotta go to all those classes. You get a choice in [high school]…It’s more free.

“Taken together, these two studies show that ninth grade is a pivotal year that provides a unique intervention point for reducing high school dropout,” Elaine Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of UChicago CCSR, said in a news release. “Schools truly can prevent course failure and high school dropout, particularly if they provide students with the rights supports at the right time.”

Other key points from the Preventable Failure include:

  • Between 2007-08 and 2012-13, improvements in ninth-grade on-track rates across the school district were dramatic, sustained, and observed across a wide range of high schools and among critical subgroups—by race, by gender, and across achievement levels. The highest gains came among African American males.
  • Improvements in on-track records were accompanied by across-the-board improvements in grades.
  • Increasing ninth-grade on-track rates did not negatively affect high schools’ average ACT scores—despite the fact that many more students with weaker incoming skills made it to junior year to take the test.

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