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Early Warning Signs: One F in Middle School Matters

By Catherine Gewertz — May 22, 2009 1 min read
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Experts have been telling educators for quite a while now that they should be paying careful attention to bad patterns in key indicators like attendance and grades as early as middle school so they can catch students who are at risk of dropping out, and provide extra support.

Patterns of Ds and Fs... Patterns of missing class. That’s hardly counterintuitive. But now the folks who did some of the most definitive work on early indicators, Robert Balfanz’s team at Johns Hopkins, tell us that failing even one semester of a course could be a potent early sign of increased dropout risk.

In this recent report on Denver’s students, Balfanz’s team provides data showing that three-quarters of the students who dropped out of Denver schools in 2006-07 had failed one semester of a course, compared with half of the students who graduated.

Tracking that same “primary risk indicator” back to middle school, the researchers found that more than a third of Denver’s 6th graders that year had at least one semester course failure.

This seems like a very valuable piece of information for teachers, counselors, and principals to have; one F and a kid needs some extra support.

But let’s touch Earth here for a second. Many middle and high schools can’t or just don’t monitor students closely enough to detect troubling patterns, let alone respond well to them. In my work in high schools, an alarming number of students have told me that no one seems to notice when they chronically skip class. If schools snooze through stuff like that, do they have what it takes to pick up on one F in middle or high school and close their arms around that kid to offer help?

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.