Ninth grade: the new ‘make or break’ year

The 2013-14 school year marked the first year of the Third Grade Reading Guarantee (TGRG), a law that requires the retention of children not reading on grade level to be retained. This initiative was modeled after similar legislation in Florida and other states. The policy is also based on research that shows that students who can’t read on grade level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate than a child who reads proficiently. These numbers are even higher for children who live in poverty, particularly Black and Hispanic students.

In a TGRG document posted on its website, the Ohio Department of Education notes that approximately 24,000 students drop out of Ohio high schools each year. They go on to say that most of the students who drop out do not have the reading skills necessary for future success, and that the Third Grade Reading Guarantee is a way of ensuring support for struggling readers early in life.  At Fordham, we’ve long said that reading is important to long-term success, and research shows that third grade is a pivotal year. But with all this focus on third grade, we could be missing another pivotal year that’s just as deserving of our attention—ninth grade.

In the past few years, education researchers have begun to label ninth grade as the “make or break” year for students. Research shows that more students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school, and a disproportionate number of students who are held back in ninth grade subsequently drop out. In addition, course performance and attendance during the first year of high school are powerful predictors of whether a student will go on to earn a diploma. A 2013 article in The Atlantic points to a third predictor of a student’s likelihood to drop out: behavior. Taken together, course performance, attendance, and behavior in ninth grade combine to form powerful indicators of whether a student will go on to graduate or drop out. This is particularly worrisome given that data show that while the ninth grade often has the highest enrollment rate in high schools, it also boasts the lowest grade point average, the most missed classes, the majority of failing grades, and more misbehavior referrals than any other high school grade level. Freshman year of high school represents a symbolic passage into near-adulthood, with teenagers much more likely to be impulsive and take risks. Thus ninth grade becomes a do-or-die year for Ohio students on their way to high school diplomas.

So, if ninth grade is critical, what’s a state to do? Instead of creating another statewide requirement like the Third Grade Reading Guarantee though, ninth grade represents a chance for Ohio’s districts to flex their innovative muscles in a way that targets their unique student population. For districts, it might be worthwhile to start looking into how other cities and states are handling the ninth grade dilemma.

Chicago Public Schools, for instance, has been focusing on the importance of ninth grade since 2007. A recent Ed Week article points to how the graduation rate in Chicago has risen from 47 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2014. The district predicts that the graduation rate for the class of 2018 will be 84 percent. Researchers claim that this increase, starting in 2011, is due largely to Chicago’s increased focus on keeping freshmen “on track.” A student is labeled as on track when he or she has at least five full-year credits and no more than one semester F in a core class by the end of his or her freshman year. Researchers note this can be more difficult for ninth graders than other students because freshmen often struggle with the increased freedom and responsibility of high school. To combat this, the district utilized real-time, easy-to-use data about attendance and grades to flag students who were in danger of falling behind the on track rate. Teachers then reached out to identify problems and potential solutions. The district also increased support from leadership and the time for collaboration among teacher teams, both of which allowed teachers to focus on individual student needs.

Another possible strategy is for districts to implement Ninth Grade Academies, which exist in various states, including Tennessee and North Carolina. Their purpose is to provide freshmen with additional resources and personalized support to ease the transition into high school and to keep students “on track” to graduate. There are several different models of ninth grade academies. Some exist within the framework of a typical high school, operating as a sort of school-within-a-school for ninth graders that minimizes the sometimes overwhelming nature of a comprehensive high school. These models may house all freshmen classes in one particular hallway, may assign freshmen to their own lunch period separate from upperclassmen, and can sometimes even assign a principal who only interacts with ninth graders and their families. Some academies, like those established in DC Public Schools in 2013, focus on grouping students with a staff that includes a core group of teachers, a social worker, a guidance counselor, and a data lead who reviews students data throughout the year and then determines which “team” is best for each student. Other academies match students with their own advisor, who is responsible for checking in one-on-one and building strong relationships with his/her assigned students. 

There are also career academies that focus on college prep curriculums with a career focus and collaborations with employers, community members, and higher education institutions.  

The “make or break” nature of ninth grade isn’t reserved only for students at risk of dropping out; even for those who go on to graduate, Ohio still faces a remediation rate of 40 percent. Furthermore, a close look at Ohio students taking the ACT shows that only 32 percent score high enough to be deemed college ready in all four academic areas. If Ohio districts want to boost their graduation rates and ACT scores while also lowering college remediation rates, taking a closer look at ninth grade and its important role in student success is a good place to start. While districts might certainly look to the Third Grade Reading Guarantee as an example of how to focus on a single critical year, retaining kinds in ninth grade should not be the goal. Retention is not the answer for struggling high school students, and could needlessly push “bubble” students toward dropping out

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.