Keeping freshmen on-track pays off for graduation: study

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All that attention CPS high schools have given to keeping freshmen “on track” toward graduation actually paid off.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, which has long said that the freshman year is the most important predictor of graduation. 

The Consortium looked at 20 schools that substantially improved their freshman on-track rates in 2008 and 2009 to see whether those improvements translated into long-term academic gains or increased graduation rates.  Four years later, graduation rates at those schools jumped by 8 to 20 percentage points.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” says Melissa Roderick, one of the authors of the report, which was released today. “There are no excuses anymore. This is the way we should be doing drop-out prevention.”

Improvements were seen at schools of all sizes and across the city, regardless of students’ race, gender or achievement levels. The biggest gains, however, were seen among African-American males, as well as those in the bottom quartile of academic performance, according to the Consortium.

In 2007, CPS launched an initiative to improve on-track rates, after Consortium researchers – who had developed the measurement years earlier– showed how freshman year is the biggest predictor of graduation. Freshmen are considered on track if they have accumulated enough credits to be promoted into 10th grade, and have failed no more than one semester course in a core subject during the school year.

The district gave schools autonomy to try out their own approaches to improving the on-track rates, while providing monthly data-driven updates on student progress. Thomas Kelley-Kemple, another author of the study, said that what matters less is the strategy used to improve on-track rates, but the effects.

“The question was whether the relationship between on-track and graduation rates hold, and the answer is a resounding yes,” he said.

During a press conference this morning, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that “this huge success shows that we’re capable of on-the-ground change, and getting kids on track in 9th grade is getting them on track to high school and college graduation. This is part of our turnaround.”

Leads to overall improvement

Overall, the district’s on-track rate rose from 57 to 82 percent between 2007 and 2013.

Roderick said she knew that some educators had questioned the Consortium’s earlier assertions about the importance of freshman year, and that 9th graders who are on track are four times more likely to graduate from high school.

“Some people felt this was overstretching the claims, and that schools were [just] pushing the problems off a year,” she said. “But we found no evidence of this. It’s remarkable.”

The study found that in all but one of the schools, improvements in 9th grade on-track rates continued in subsequent years. The improvements were also accompanied by overall improvements in grades, including a higher percentage of students with B’s or better, and fewer students with Fs.

“There is little evidence, on average, that the increase in on-track rates in these schools was driven by simply focusing on turning F’s into D’s or on trying to move students at margins,” according to the report.

A companion report by the Consortium also released today looks at the dramatic drop in grades and attendance that occurs between 8th and 9th grades. Across achievement levels, students tend to drop by more than half a letter grade after making the transition to high school.

Researchers found that students’ grades declined not because the work is harder, but because of a drop in attendance and because they put less effort into studying. The study found that this is largely due to less monitoring from teachers, and a new school structure that presents students with the “choice” to attend class or turn in assignments.

“Many 9th-graders […] are not ready to assume complete responsibility for managing their own academic behavior,” according to the report. “Students interpret the lack of monitoring and adult supervision of their academic behavior to mean that work effort is a choice rather than a responsibility.”

To read both of the reports, visit www.ccsr.uchicago.edu.

Catalyst intern Sarah Blau contributed to this report.