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COURSE GRADES AND ATTENDANCE RATES PRIME PREDICTORS: New Report Examines What Matters for Staying On Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools

"Even though we often think of dropping out as influenced by many different factors, it is a predictable event," said Elaine Allensworth

Freshman course grades and attendance rates are far more important for predicting whether students will graduate from high school than test scores or family background, according to What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools, a recent report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) at the University of Chicago.

“Even though we often think of dropping out as influenced by many different factors, it is a predictable event,” said Elaine Allensworth, a co-director at the Consortium and the lead author of the study. “We can tell with surprising accuracy who is eventually going to graduate, who is going to drop out, and who could go either way by looking at students’ grades in the freshman year.”

In an analysis of first-time freshmen in the 2004-05 school year, the report finds that the freshman year is a make-it-or-break-it year for all students-both high and low performers. According to the report, strong students can quickly fall off course if they start cutting ninth grade classes and not completing assignments; at the same time, students who struggled in elementary school can turn things around if they come to school every day and aim for at least a B average. Unfortunately, half of Chicago freshmen fail at least one course, about 40 percent miss more than a month of school in that first year (which includes class cutting), and the average GPA is lower than a C.

The study builds on previous CCSR work that developed an on-track indicator that could predict the likelihood that a student would graduate from high school. In that work, CCSR determined that students are on track to graduate if they had completed enough credits by the end of ninth grade to be promoted to tenth grade and had failed no more than one semester of a core subject.

One problem with the on-track indicator is that it cannot predict whether students are on track to graduate until after their freshman year. In an effort to give schools earlier data on students’ progress toward graduation and encourage them to be more vigilant with vulnerable students, CCSR’s newest report looks closely at a range of readily available indicators of high school performance and their relationship with eventual graduation. The report finds that a typical freshman who earns a B average or better has a 95 percent chance of graduating in four years and an 80 percent chance of graduating with a 3.0 GPA or higher. On the other hand, freshmen with less than a C- average are much more likely to drop out than receive their diploma.

The report also finds that attendance is a stronger predictor of a student’s grades than previously realized. For example, freshmen who miss two weeks or more of school per semester fail at least two classes on average-even if they arrive at high school with top test scores. Just one week of absence more than makes up for the difference in failure rates between top and bottom scoring students. Attendance also plays a huge part in whether a student ultimately graduates. According to the report, 90 percent of freshmen who miss less than one week of school per semester receive their diploma.

In addition to course grades and attendance, school factors also play an important role in shaping freshmen academic outcomes. The report finds that attendance, pass rates, and grades are higher than expected in schools where more students feel their classroom teachers can be trusted to keep their word, give them individual attention, and show personal concern for their academic success. In addition, schools that make classroom work relevant to a student’s life after high school and have high expectations for all students have lower than expected absence rates and higher than expected grades.

In light of these findings, the report suggests that intervention efforts focused on students who are just below average-those with GPAs in the C- to D+ range and who miss one or two weeks per semester-could pay off in higher graduation rates for schools. According to the report, these students’ chances of earning their diplomas are about 50-50, but they are often not seen as at risk of dropping out or in need of additional supports.

The complete report is available at

Turning Around Low-Performing Schools: Alliance Event Features Findings from CCSR, Johns Hopkins, and Boston Public Schools


In a recent Alliance for Excellent Education symposium, Elaine Allensworth, a co-director of the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) at the University of Chicago, discussed the findings from What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools and offered suggestions for how schools and families can keep more teens in school. The event, “Turning Around Low-Performing High Schools: Lessons for Federal Policy from Research and Practice,” also featured presenters from the Boston Public Schools and Johns Hopkins University.

In his presentation, Larry M. Myatt from the Office of High School Renewal in the Boston Public Schools discussed the Boston Public Schools’ use of data to drive policy and practice throughout the district, particularly as it informs the design and implementation of high school improvement efforts. In addition, Robert Balfanz, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, presented new data on the nearly 2,000 “dropout factories” located across the nation that produce half of the nation’s dropouts. In these schools, the number of seniors is routinely 60 percent or fewer than the number of freshmen four years earlier. Balfanz also discussed the characteristics of these schools and their students, and what is best known about how to address their problems.

Video from the symposium is available at



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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.