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Study: Focus on 9th Graders Boosted Chicago's Graduation Rates

A study by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research to be released on Thursday is expected to show evidence that the Chicago school district's 9th grade "on track" program—a concerted effort by the district to reduce dropout rates by collecting real-time data on students and then targeting those considered at-risk before they fall behind—has led to an increase in the city's high school graduation rate, a trend that's expected to continue.

Since the  program was implemented in  2007,  the number of students deemed to be "on-track" for graduation has risen by 25 percentage points, from 57 percent in 2007 to 82 percent in 2013—meaning that about 6,900 additional students finished the 9th grade each year without major course failures and enough credits to gain sophomore status as a result of the program, according to a draft summary of the report, "Preventable Failure Improvements in Long-Term Outcomes when High Schools Focused on the 9th Grade Year," by researchers Melissa Roderick, Thomas Kelley-Kemple, David W. Johnson, and Nicole O. Beechum.

Following  the graduation rates of students at 20 schools, the study found that student gains in the 9th grade continued through the 10th and 11th grades, resulting in increases in the graduation rate ranging from 8 to 20 percentage points in schools that saw early improvements, to up to 13 percentage points in schools that showed improvements later.

The "on track" rates rose across all racial and ethnic groups. The largest increase was seen among African-American males, and students with the weakest skills going into the 9th grade appeared to be the among the biggest beneficiaries.

A student is said to be "on-track"  in the 9th grade if he or she has enough credits to be promoted to the 10th grade and has received no more than one F in a core subject. The  program was adopted in 2007, following CCSR's studies showing that students who were "on-track" at the end of 9th grade were four times more likely to graduate from high schools than those who lagged behind their peers.

Researchers argue that success in 9th grade is more predictive of whether a student would complete high school than any other factor, including race or ethnicity, poverty level, and test scores.

The city's high school graduation rate has been climbing steadily. Last year the city trumpeted its 65.4 percent graduation rate, a figure that surpassed 2013's 61.2 percent rate and was significantly higher than the 44 percent rate of nearly a decade ago.  

A second report due out Thursday explores the various reasons why 9th grade was the "make-it-or-break-it" year for high school students and suggests that intervention and support from teachers and the school system can change the trajectory.  

According to that study, "Free to Fail or On-Track to College: Why Grades Drop When Students Enter High School and What Adults Can Do About It" by Todd Rosenkranz, Marisa de la Torre, W. David Stevens, and Elaine M. Allensworth, both high- and low-achieving students struggle as they transition from middle school to high school. In some cases, the decline in grades is more than half a letter grade— or 0.6 percent on a 4.0 grading scale. The reason is not because the work is harder, but largely because of a drop in attendance (9th grade students tend to miss three times as many days of school as 8th graders, partially because they are subjected to less adult monitoring) and changes in study habits, the researchers conclude.  

Citing examples at some Chicago schools, the researchers argue that support from teachers and the school can make a difference in retaining students and keeping them "on track." One neighborhood Chicago school, for example, developed  a three-step approach to helping students stay the course. First, the school rearranged the school day, scheduling the advisory period as the first class of the day so that tardiness would not become an issue. A teacher also called home every time a student missed class. And the school implemented a discipline policy that relied less on suspensions. Another school reached out to students who received Fs during the semester to find out why they were failing and craft a plan to get them back on track.

The researchers also recommended ways that schools can help students. They can structure classes and activities in a way that students have to opt out of engaging; create monitoring systems to identify students who are withdrawing and offer assistance and before they fall behind; and create a centralized data system to monitor students so they don't fall between the cracks.

Collectively, both papers, which are expected to be released in full in 2015, show evidence that high dropout and low graduation rates, far from being intractable problems afflicting large urban school districts, can be affected—and reversed—by school-based programs.

"Taken together, these two studies show that 9th grade is a pivotal year that provides a unique intervention point for reducing high school dropout," said Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring Director of the consortium. "Schools truly can prevent course failure and high school dropout, particularly if they provide students with the right supports at the right time."

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