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A CITY AT RISK: New Research Identifies Sixth-Grade “Risk Factors” That Can Predict Future High School Dropouts in Philadelphia

"They're just starting to fall off track, and there's time to pull them back in."

Almost half of the students who ultimately drop out of Philadelphia high schools can be identified as early as the sixth grade, according to research by the Philadelphia Education Fund in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University. The research found that a student displaying any one of four risk factors-attendance below 80 percent, poor behavior, a failing math grade, and a failing English grade-has, at best, only a 10 percent chance of graduating from high school on time, and only a 20 percent chance of graduating one year late.

“As early as the sixth grade, you can identify kids at risk and who won’t graduate unless something is done,” said Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins, the coauthor of the study along with Liza Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund. “They’re just starting to fall off track, and there’s time to pull them back in.”

About 3,500 of the Philadelphia School District’s 11,000 sixth graders in the 1996-97 school year had one or more of the risk factors. In addition to facing extremely long odds against receiving their diploma, these students also scored poorly on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), became overage in the middle grades, and became ninth-grade repeaters-often for several years. As the chart below demonstrates, very low percentages of sixth graders with just one risk factor graduated on time or with one extra year. Meanwhile, 69 percent of students in the comparison group graduated on time. The comparison group represents sixth graders with 90 percent or higher attendance, excellent behavior, passing grades in English and math, and scores at or above basic on the fifth-grade PSSA for math and reading.

According to Balfanz and Herzog, “intervening early and getting students back on track will not only decrease the dropout rate, but will have positive impacts on middle grade and high school test scores, attendance, and overall school climate.” They note that students who enter high school two or more years behind grade level in math and literacy have only a fifty-fifty chance of on-time promotion to the tenth grade.

More information is available at

Percentage of Sixth Graders Who Graduate on Time or Within One Extra Year Given Certain “Risk Factors”
(Click on the chart to view a larger image)

city at risk

Who graduates?

  • 17 percent of sixth graders who earn an unsatisfactory final behavior mark
  • 14 percent of sixth graders who attend school less than 80 percent of the time
  • 21 percent of sixth graders who fail math
  • 16 percent of sixth graders who fail English
  • 69 percent of a compa


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