There are a number of reasons that a student may fall behind in school, but one of the most impactful is making the transition to high school. Research shows that whether students graduate from high school is largely determined during their freshman year. In this Q&A, Elaine M. Allensworth, Lewis-Sebring Director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, shares her findings and perspectives on the transition in schools in Chicago.

Why is the transition to high school so important for students’ long-term success?

Elaine Allensworth (EA): School transitions bring considerable change for students. One particular tension is the increase in responsibility that happens when students go to high school, combined with less supervision and less support. Students can easily confuse having the responsibility for getting to class and getting work done on their own with having the freedom of choice of whether to do it or not.

In Chicago, we noticed that students’ unexcused absences quadrupled when they moved from eighth to ninth grade. Many students thought they did not have to go to class every day in high school. Yet, absences cause students to fall behind. When students start falling behind, they often get embarrassed or frustrated and start withdrawing further. That begins a downward spiral, until they fall too far behind to catch up. It is important for students to establish effective strategies for managing high school, and ninth grade is the time when they figure out how to do that.

The first year in high school also has an outsize impact on whether students eventually graduate because it is a critical time for students’ perceptions of themselves as learners. With the school transition comes questions for students about whether and how they will fit in to the new context. If a student isn’t sure she can succeed, or feels she doesn’t belong, she will be less likely to put in effort when challenges arise. After failing once, each time a student starts a new class he will wonder if he’s just going to fail again. On the other hand, if students have a successful ninth grade year, they know that they can succeed, and that they belong in high school, and those positive mindsets will help them face up to the challenges they face later on.

How are 9th grade early warning indicators useful for improving student achievement?

EA: Over the last decade, ninth grade early warning indicators have shifted the way that educators perceive and address the issue of high school dropout. Rather than waiting until students are almost done with high school and so far behind in credits they have virtually no chance of graduating, educators are now working to prevent students from failing in the first place. Dropout prevention programs traditionally focused on students who had failed half or more of their classes the prior year, or were only occasionally coming to school; those students are obviously in need of support. At that point, Consortium research shows students have about a ten percent probability of graduating, or less. In the meantime, students who were just starting to struggle—those getting Ds or Fs in their classes or missing a day or two of class a month–were not viewed as in need of intervention. Particularly in the ninth grade year, it could look like students had plenty of time to catch up if they fell behind.

Course failures have an outsize impact on students’ likelihood of graduating. In the Consortium’s 2007 report What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools, we showed that one “F” in a year-long course in the ninth grade decreases the probability of eventually graduating by 30 percentage points, even if a student has strong test scores. Two “Fs” in ninth grade decrease the probability of graduating by over 50 percentage points (from 85 percent to 33 percent). There are many reasons students might struggle in their classes. If educators notice, reach out, and help students develop strategies to deal with their struggles early on, they not only can help students with their challenges in ninth grade, but also give them the strategies they can use throughout high school. In Chicago, we’ve seen that educators’ work to prevent failure in ninth grade has paid off; as Freshman OnTrack rates rose from 60 to 75 percent, graduation rates showed concurrent increases when those cohorts reached their time for graduation, four years later. OnTrack rates have continued to rise, reaching 88 percent with the most recent cohort, and the district is optimistic that graduation rates will continue to improve, as well.

How have indicators helped enforce district accountability?

EA: High school accountability only used to include indictors of student performance that happened at the end of high school—high school graduation rates and ACT scores. This provides no information on how schools are doing with students in their first two years of high school. It also puts subtle pressure on educators to work most closely with older students, since they are the students whose records will count in that year’s data report. Yet, we now know that students’ success early on in high school sets the stage for how they perform in later years. By including a metric of student performance at the end of ninth grade—in Chicago this is the Freshman OnTrack metric—the district signals to schools that the ninth grade matters.

Of course, just holding schools accountable for a metric is not sufficient to increase student achievement, if educators lack strategies for improvement. In Chicago, improvements in Freshman OnTrack rates started the year the district developed real-time data systems and support for educators on using them. The data reports allowed educators to examine student performance data in an organized way starting at the beginning of the ninth grade year, so that they could identify and support students early. The combination of changes in accountability, along with supports to help staff use the data, allowed schools to shift their focus to preventing high school dropout instead of reacting after it is too late.

How do the indicators used in 9th grade support teachers’ work with students through high school completion? In what ways do teachers use the indicators to shift their instruction after the first year?

EA: As students get older there are often even more factors pulling them from engagement in school than during their ninth grade year, and often they have more responsibilities. If students did not establish effective work habits and strategies in their first year, chances are high they will fall even further behind their second and third years. The ninth grade indicators signal which students need intensive supports before they even start their second year. It can seem as if a student who has only failed one or two courses in ninth grade is not that far behind, given that they have three more years to catch up, but that student actually needs considerable support to get back on track and eventually graduate. Consortium research shows that less than 25 percent of students who are off-track in their freshman year graduate from high school in four years.

Learning to monitor students’ grades and attendance early on, and throughout the year, also changes the nature of teachers’ work. Instead of simply setting expectations and then assigning grades based on whether those students meet those expectations, teachers are more likely to try to find out why students are struggling or missing class. When teachers come together and look at data on students as a team they can share information about what different students might need, and develop strategies to support the students they have in common.

What can other districts learn from what Chicago has done to streamline a path for students from 9th grade to graduation?

EA: First, the simplicity of the freshman on-track metric itself is important—a student is on-track if they failed no more than one semester of a course and have enough credits to become a sophomore. Often people want to create complicated indicators based of lots of pieces of information about students. That additional information may barely improve the prediction of who will graduate, while making the indicator obtuse so that educators are not sure what to do to show improvements. For example, in Chicago, we found that the Freshman Ontrack indicator correctly predicted 80 percent of graduates; adding information on students’ standardized test scores, race, gender, economic status, school mobility and age to the prediction models allowed us to predict 81 percent of graduates correctly. We could have had a slightly stronger prediction with a more complex indicator, but not much stronger. Knowing that on-track rates are about preventing course failure provides a clear focus to the work. It also means that dropout prevention is not an add-on to teachers’ other work, but is in line with their other goals as a teacher.

Second, it is essential to have systems for monitoring students’ grades and attendance from the start of the year, and for reaching out as soon as either drops. Missing a day of class here and there, or falling behind on a few assignments, is the time when a small intervention could have a big impact. Systematically looking at student data to see who is showing signs of starting to struggle is essential for preventing failure, and for keeping students from falling through the cracks.

Third, Chicago’s high schools have benefited from strong external partners and district supports, as well as strong collaboration among teachers within schools. For example, the Network for College Success brings school leadership teams together to look at each others’ data and share strategies. Nonprofits and programs such as City Year and Gear Up provide supports to students who are flagged by early warning indicators. The district has provided on-track coordinators and data strategists to schools, as well as providing data tools and systems. Chicago schools also emphasize the importance of teacher leadership and collaboration on shared strategies to help students succeed. Changing student outcomes requires changing school systems and structures—this is really hard to do. Collaboration and support inside the school among school staff, and with external partners and networks of schools, facilitate those major changes in schools.