“System shifts—large, consistent improvements that create lasting change across subgroups and considerably reduce variation in outcomes across schools—are rare in education. This is one of those rare cases.”
That’s a key takeaway from Preventable Failure: Improvements in Long-Term Outcomes when High Schools Focused on the Ninth Grade Year, a forthcoming research report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research (UChicago CCSR) examining how a focus on ninth-grade “on-track” rates lead to dramatic improvements in high school graduation rates across all subgroups, including race, gender, and achievement levels, in twenty Chicago public high schools.
In 2007, UChicago CCSR released research demonstrating that the transition between eighth and ninth grade played a critical role in shaping students’ long-term outcomes. Specifically, it found that attendance and course performance in ninth grade were highly predictive of whether a student would drop out of high school. Encouraged by the UChicago CCSR research, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) began a targeted approach in 2007 to improve the transition between eighth and ninth grade and reduce course failure in the ninth grade. Preventable Failure summarizes the new strategies that CPS undertook, including new data reports for monitoring and supporting students in real time, ninth-grade coordinators, and summer transition programs. The results were dramatic: between 2007 and 2013 the CPS on-track rate rose 25 percentage points, from 57 percent to 82 percent, across all racial/ethnic groups, among males and females, and across all levels of incoming achievement.
The report focuses on twenty schools from two different groups: three “primary mover” schools that showed large improvements in on-track rates in 2008; and seventeen “secondary mover” schools that showed improvements in 2009.
In 2011, after students were in school for four years, graduation rates jumped at all three primary-mover schools from 8 to 20 percentage points. Among secondary-mover schools, graduation rates jumped by an average of 13 percentage points from 2009 to 2012, as shown in the graph below. (Click on the image below for a larger version).
Improvements in ninth-grade on-track rates continued to improve among subsequent cohorts in all but one early-mover school. By 2013, only a handful of schools had on-track rates below 70 percent. Additionally, grades improved at all ends of the achievement spectrum, with a 10 percentage point increase in freshmen with B’s or better and a 12 percentage point increase in freshmen with no F’s. The report also notes that high schools’ average ACT scores were not negatively affected, even though more students with weaker incoming skills made it to their junior year to take the test.
The report notes that the characteristics of incoming ninth graders were not significantly better than in prior years and instead credits the improvements to the increase in ninth-grade on-track rates. “Students who end their ninth-grade year on-track are almost four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who are off-track,” the report notes. “In fact, a student’s on-track status is more predictive of high school graduation than their race/ethnicity, level of poverty, or test scores. The on-track indicator focused attention on a key developmental transition with a quantitative measure that could be easily calculated, monitored, and ultimately acted and improved upon.”
“Ninth grade is a pivotal year that provides a unique intervention point to prevent school dropout,” the report concludes. “What is clear is that no matter how a school increases on-track rates in ninth grade, graduation rates improve three years later.”
More information on Preventable Failure, including a PDF of the summary report, is available at http://ontrack.uchicago.edu/.
 According to the report, the on-track indicator measures whether ninth graders are making adequate progress to graduation based on their credit completion and course failures. Students are considered “on track” if they have enough credits to be promoted to tenth grade and earned no more than one semester F in a core course.