Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
Ruth Curran Nield
The District Role in Keeping Ninth Graders On Track
Although much of the hard, everyday work of keeping ninth graders on track needs to be done at the school level, school districts also have played a role. They have tried to address the challenge of the ninth grade in two main ways. First, they have created data systems and indicators to assess the share of off-track ninth graders at each school. And, second, they have developed and funded district-wide summer bridge programs for incoming freshmen. In addition, evaluations of comprehensive school reform programs with a focus on ninth graders suggest that there are benefits to high school reform of having district leadership that actively supports the reform with consistent year-to-year funding, appropriate and timely school staffing, minimal bureaucratic interference, and technical resources as necessary. It goes almost without saying that one of the most important things that school districts can do to support ninth-grade reform is to encourage interventions at the school level that have research support.
Data Systems and On-Track Indicators
A notable example of district leadership in the use of data to shine a light on ninth-grade progress is the Chicago Public Schools, which has incorporated an on-track indicator for ninth graders into its school accountability system. The indicator draws on empirical research by the Consortium on Chicago School Research showing that first-time ninth graders in Chicago who are promoted to tenth grade on time and who do not receive any Fs for semester core courses are three and a half times more likely to graduate from high school than students who do not meet these criteria. As part of the district's High School Scorecard, the share of students at each high school who are on track after ninth grade is reported publicly, along with other indicators of high school performance such as the share of students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses, average daily attendance, and student reports about the quality of their school (gathered from a district-wide student survey).51 The Consortium on Chicago School Research reports that the on-track indicator contributed to an increase in the share of students who were on track at the end of ninth grade (48 percent in 1994–95, rising to 58 percent in 2003–04).52 There is no evidence that these gains resulted from the indicator in and of itself, as opposed to other efforts to improve ninth grade outcomes; it would be a mistake to infer that simply putting in place an accountability indicator will transform the freshman experience in a district.
In addition to providing data about student performance after the fact—that is, after the school year is already over—some districts have developed tools that can provide real-time data to help school personnel identify and monitor students who appear to be getting off track. In Philadelphia, a pilot project in the middle grades provides teachers with regularly updated data on student attendance and course grades on the district's data interface. Teams of teachers use these data to decide collectively when students need more intensive interventions, including access to counselors and social workers.53 This example also illustrates how school districts—far more than individual high schools themselves—can support efforts to prepare middle-grade students for high school.
Summer Transition Programs for Incoming Ninth Graders
Many school districts also offer summer programs that are intended to increase students' math or reading comprehension skills, teach study strategies, orient them to the layout of the school, and enable them to meet high school teachers and classmates. For example, the Step Up to High School program, offered by the Chicago Public Schools beginning in 2003, targeted students who scored between the 35th and 49th percentiles in reading or math on a nationally normed standardized test. Although these students would not have qualified for other kinds of academic supports offered by the district because their test scores were too high, the district's research showed that the students still had a high probability of performing poorly in ninth grade. The program was voluntary, and participating students attended classes five mornings a week for four weeks during the summer.
Reports of successful summer bridge programs abound, often drawing on claims by principals of the success of their program or on data assembled by school districts that may or may not have used a comparison group.54 However, it is exceedingly difficult to identify evaluations of summer bridge programs that use a random-assignment strategy to accept students into the program. The lack of random assignment means that one cannot be confident about whether any observed differences between program attendees and non-attendees are the result of the program itself, as opposed to other student characteristics that may have an effect on eventual high school success but are difficult to measure. Students who attended the program may have had advantages—such as greater motivation, stronger family support, or less pressure to seek employment during the summer—over students who did not attend the program. Thus, although Chicago's internal district evaluation of the Step Up to High School program found that students who attended the program had significantly and substantially higher rates of being on track after ninth grade (60 percent for participants, 43 percent for students who were invited but did not participate), its lack of a randomized design makes it necessary to interpret the findings with great caution.55
Some districts also have developed one-day orientation programs for ninth graders or transition supports such as a "buddy system" in which freshmen are mentored by students in the upper grades. A small-scale study of a transition program that randomly assigned freshmen to be mentored by upper-grade students did not find any statistically significant effects, although the study was likely underpowered.56 There is little research evidence that these kinds of transition supports, in and of themselves, are able to keep freshmen on track.