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Stuck in 9th Grade: The Bulge in the Education Pipeline

In the national discussion about lowering the high school dropout rate, the freshman year has emerged as a key area to focus on. We know that it's important to make sure students transition from eighth to ninth grade smoothly and successfully, and to take special care that they stay engaged and on track during their freshman year.

Ninth grade is a particularly leaky part of the education pipeline; it's a place where too many students drop out. (Earlier this year, I wrote about an attempt in Chicago to use data to monitor every student as they enter 9th grade. See also our 2006 Diplomas Count study, showing where we lose students in the graduation pipeline.)

But ninth grade is also a place where too many kids get stuck. A new report from the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore shows that in 2004-05, more than 90,000 students from six states—16 percent of all freshmen—repeated their freshman year. (In South Carolina, it was nearly 30 percent.)

The report's author, Thomas C. West, notes that this "ninth grade bulge" poses distinct challenges as schools and districts try to improve their graduation rates. The good news, however, according to West, is that if educators and policymakers pay attention to ninth grade retention patterns, they can use them to inform their work, seeking more support or making changes where necessary. The report suggested that all states be required to include counts of first-time ninth graders in their data reporting, so ninth grade retention could be better tracked.

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