College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Getting On Track to Graduation

By Urban Education Contributor — June 28, 2018 4 min read
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This post is by Molly Crofton, Senior Research Analyst at Research For Action (RFA, @Research4Action) and author of the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC, @PHLedResearch) report described in this post.

The research discussed in this post builds on the research from Monday’s post: What Does 9th Grade Success Mean and Why Is It Important?

9th grade is a critical year. First year high schoolers who transition smoothly and earn the required credits are more likely to graduate within four years than students who struggle.

Given the importance of that first year, many school districts are setting credit requirements for 9th grade students to be considered on track to graduation. These definitions help districts understand how well they are supporting their 9th graders and which students need additional support. Recently, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) developed a new Ninth Grade On-Track definition which requires a first-time 9th grader to earn one credit in each of the four core areas (math, English, social studies, and science), plus an additional credit from any content area in order to be considered on track (see more details in Monday’s post). With support from the To and Through Project at the University of Chicago, SDP adapted a similar indicator used in Chicago Public Schools.

This definition served as a starting point for understanding how Philadelphia 9th graders manage the high school transition—and how the district can best support them. This is where the partnership between SDP and the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC), where I work, has been valuable. While SDP has significant analytic capacity, our partnership enables us to sustain a joint focus on 9th grade achievement. We are now working to publish a series of follow-up reports examining multiple facets of the 9th grade transition. Here, we share the findings from one of the studies produced by this partnership. Getting On Track to Graduation: Ninth Graders’ Credit Accumulation analyzed how two recent cohorts of SDP students performed according to the new 9th Grade On-Track Definition.

What The Research Examines

We used data from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years to examine the on-track rate for first-time 9th graders in SDP, for subgroups of students, and for individual high schools. Although the On-Track Definition was not in place when these students were in 9th grade, this analysis helps establish a benchmark and to identify students and schools that might need additional support.

Given the five discrete requirements of the new 9th Grade On-Track definition (earning at least one credit in each of the four core subject areas plus at least one additional credit from any source), we also examined how many of these requirements off-track students were missing.

What The Research Finds

Over the two cohorts studied, we found that 67% of students were on track at the end of their 9th grade year. Most of the students were enrolled in each of the four required core courses, so most off-track students had failed at least one core course.

Focusing in on the off-track students in the sample, we found that more than 40% of the off-track students were missing just one of the five requirements, as shown in the figure below. On the other hand, 22% of off-track students were missing four or five requirements, meaning they were essentially an entire year behind.

Number of Requirements that Off-Track Students Were Missing

We also analyzed on-track rates by subgroups of students. This analysis showed that on-track rates differed by gender, race, and ethnicity, ranging from 55 percent for Latino males to 90 percent for Asian females. Within each racial or ethnic group, a higher percentage of females were on track compared to males of the same race or ethnicity. Additionally, students receiving special education services and low-income students were more often off track—and farther off track—than their peers. English learners were also more often off track than their peers but were missing fewer requirements than other off-track students.

Finally, we studied the school-level on-track rates and found that they varied widely by school. At three of the 54 high schools in SDP, all students were on track at the end of 9th grade. At other schools, fewer than half of students were on track. Schools with lower on-track rates had a higher percentage of students that were far off track and were serving more special education students, English learners, and students from low-income families.

Next Steps for Practice and Research

This series of research highlights the importance of focusing on 9th grade as a strategic approach to improve high school graduation rates. To make a lasting difference on the 9th grade on-track rate, and eventually the graduation rate, it is important to implement a coherent, multi-faceted set of interventions.

The partnership between SDP and PERC is gathering actionable information that will be used to plan these interventions. We are working iteratively, researching different aspects of the 9th-grade year and using what we find to think through next steps for both research and practice. This first publication can be used in practice to identify students and schools in the district that might need more support to stay on track. It can also serve as a benchmark against which future interventions can measure impact.

Our next steps are to study (1) if eighth grade data can be used to identify students at heightened risk of going off track before they even start high school, and (2) any associations between daily attendance patterns with course grades. Based on those findings, we will continue to iterate and identify next steps for both practice and research.

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