Freshman year of high school, as nearly anyone can attest, is a lot to digest, from new locker combinations to lunchroom politics to catching the right bus and avoiding rowdy juniors.
Aside from those social concerns, there’s increasing evidence that it is one of the most important academic years in students’ lives. Freshman year grade point average is a powerful signal of how students will do in later years—and even whether they will enroll in college, a new research study says.
Or to put it in a more urgent way: When students experience a rough freshman year of high school, they usually don’t recover from it.
The research, from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, analyzed eight data cohorts of Chicago high school freshmen, from the entering classes of 2006 to 2013—more than 187,000 students in all. They looked at data including the students’ school grades, test scores, and background information like race and the poverty status of the neighborhoods where they lived. Researchers John Q. Easton, Esperanza Johnson, and Lauren Sartain tracked the students’ progress through high school and, where applicable, their college enrollment and retention rates.
They found clear achievement patterns based on freshman GPA. It was highly predictive of GPA in the 11th grade. It was also predictive of whether students would actually graduate, whether they would enroll in college, and whether they would remain in college after one year, with A- and B-level students generally doing better than students with lower GPAs.
GPAs were also a better predictor of outcomes than supposedly more objective test scores—in Chicago, on the ACT Inc.'s EXPLORE and PLAN, which are taken in 9th and 10th grades, respectively. The report found that freshman GPA was nearly twice as predictive of high school graduation as performance on those two tests.
There were some important variations based on gender and race in the data. Girls, on average, had many more GPAs in the A and B range than boys, as did white and Asian students compared to their black and Hispanic peers. Taking honors classes correlated with higher grades. Depressingly, the report also shows that inequitable access to schools takes its toll on GPAs, too. Chicago’s controversial selective high schools tend to have the highest number of students with GPAs in the A range, and chronically low-performing neighborhood high schools have the fewest.
In Chicago, GPAs have risen over the past decade, which has raised fears that the increases are due to grade inflation rather than genuine improvement. The report doesn’t attempt to answer that question, but it notes that those rises have been coupled with other positive trends, such as higher 8th grade scores, ACT scores, improved student attendance, and a decline in suspensions. That would suggest that some of the improvement is due to better academic performance, though it’s not conclusive evidence.
Closing the ‘GPA Gap’
The report’s takeaway is that Chicago’s focus on freshman grades is probably a good idea. And although teachers don’t use standardized criteria when they give out their A’s, B’s, and C’s, they seem to be picking up both academic performance and social factors, such as effort and attitude, that contribute to success.
What gets trickier is that, while these patterns exist, there’s less data to explain exactly why freshman GPA is predictive of important outcomes for students. The researchers plan to look at things like attendance and discipline records to try to tease out more information on this. Perhaps, the report proffers, doing well as freshmen gives kids entry to more advanced courses later on in high school and college. Or perhaps teachers have higher expectations for students because of their high freshmen GPAs. Or maybe students develop greater confidence after experiencing initial success.
“We don’t know which of these paths are true, but it seems likely that there are elements of ‘success breeding success’ at play,” the researchers said.
For now, the reports’ authors conclude, it may well be worth focusing on efforts to reduce the “GPA gap,” in addition to the “achievement gap,” which is more commonly measured by test scores.
More districts, like Chicago, are looking at “early warning” systems in that year, which seems a good place to start. And probably not coincidentally, Illinois’ plan under the federal education law known as ESSA (or the Every Student Succeeds Act) would use a measure of whether 9th graders are on track to graduate as a school quality indicator.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.