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Keeping On Track in Ninth Grade and Beyond

Keeping On Track in Ninth Grade and Beyond

Focusing on a recent Baltimore City ninth grade cohort, the report examines the behavioral factors identified in previous research as key predictors of high school graduation, particularly ninth grade attendance and course passing. The study also demonstrates how ninth grade outcomes are linked to warning indicators in the middle grades. The report suggests that raising the graduation rate in Baltimore City will require specific attention to addressing the behavioral factors that push students off-track to graduation: chronic absenteeism, suspensions, and course failure.

Executive Summary

Raising the graduation rate in Baltimore City will require specific attention to addressing the behavioral factors identified in previous research that push students off-track to graduation, particularly chronic absenteeism, suspensions, and course failure in ninth grade.i Researchers further hypothesize that interventions to reduce the incidence of these behaviors associated with non-graduation will help to increase graduation rates, though such intervention studies have not yet been underway long enough for graduation outcomes to be measured. Such interventions will often need to address underlying causes of behavioral indicators. A first step, prior to organizing intervention strategies and evaluating their effectiveness, is to describe the extent and concentration of these ninth grade early warning indicators, which is the primary goal of this study.


Analysis of Baltimore City Schools data for the 6,662 first-time ninth graders in 2007-08 indicated that:

Chronic absenteeism was widespread.

  • Four in ten (41.9%) of all first-time ninth graders missed more than 20 days of school in 2007-08.
  • While the majority (62.4%) of those chronically absent in ninth grade were also chronically absent in eighth grade the prior year, more than a third of the chronically absent first-time ninth graders were newly falling off-track in attendance as they entered high school.

Core course failure was even more common than chronic absenteeism.

  • Half (50.4%) of all first-time ninth graders with transcript data failed at least one core course (math, English, social studies or science) and nearly four in ten (37.6%) failed two or more core courses. Course failure means that credits required for graduation were not earned, and have to be recovered in some way to keep students on track to graduation.
  • While course failure was strongly related to attendance (correlation of -0.6), a relatively large minority (40.4%) of students with at least one failure were not chronically absent (had 20 or fewer absences), and one in five had attendance of at least 95 percent.
  • Though course failure in ninth grade was related to failing math or reading/language arts (RELA) in eighth grade (the prior year), there were numerous ninth graders whose course failure would not have been predictable. Just one in four of those failing in ninth grade had evidence of failing math or RELA the prior year.

Suspensions were much less prevalent.

  • About one in six (16.9%) of first-time ninth graders in 2007-08 had at least one suspension, of whom most (80.9%) had suspensions of at least three days (a total of 13.7% of the cohort).
  • The majority (72.9%) of those who were suspended for at least three days were also chronically absent in 2007-08.
  • Suspensions were more extensive among males than females (16.9% vs. 10.4%) and special education than regular students (18.6% vs. 12.7%).
Implications of the Findings

Raising the graduation rate in Baltimore City will particularly require specifically targeted efforts to increase attendance and reduce ninth grade course failure. The large number of students exhibiting these warning signals demands extensive district support to those schools where concentrations are extremely high. Efforts to increase attendance must begin much earlier than high school, since most of those chronically absent in ninth grade had poor attendance patterns already established in prior years.

The district’s Master Plan already includes numerous action steps designed to increase attendance. While there is considerable discussion underway of the steps being taken, it is important for the district to consider a more formal analysis of ongoing efforts to increase attendance. Similarly, while the Master Plan also notes the need to address course failure, it is crucial to collect systematic data on what schools are actually doing to prevent course failure as well as to provide credit recovery options for students who need them. This is particularly important given the significant additional costs associated with credit recovery (for nearly 27,000 core courses failed at Baltimore City high schools grades 9-12 in a single academic year). While some course failure is directly linked to students’ irregular attendance, other course failure seems to have different roots.

BERC is currently planning a study to analyze school and classroom practices associated with higher levels of ninth grade course passing in Baltimore’s schools. An additional BERC study of the district’s efforts to increase attendance would provide useful information for future data-driven decision making. We believe that formal analysis of the current efforts underway to address attendance and course failure in particular will also help district leaders to better integrate multiple programs and strategies into a more systematic framework for dropout prevention. Implementation of early warning systems and public health-style tiered prevention models designed to keep students from falling off-track to graduation (particularly in terms of credits accrued) will be an important step to increase the district’s graduation rate. Assessing the effectiveness of current interventions is the next step in the “cycle of inquiry,” a fundamental practice of a well-functioning school district “learning community” (Senge, 1990).

Download the Full Report

Download the full report, available here in pdf.

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