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This data story was originally published in 2014. This story is scheduled for update in 2021. Unfortunately, the visuals are not interactive until the update. Thank you for your patience.
What aspects of middle school predict that a high school student will be promoted to the 10th grade, without repeating 9th grade? 9th grade is the make-it-or-break-it year.
National research shows that by the end of the 9th grade, students who lack adequate credits and are "off track" for on-time graduation are those most at risk of dropping out. Given the importance of 9th-grade, efforts to improve graduation rates must begin before students enter high school. We examine the middle-school experiences of a cohort of students to explore what aspects of grades 6, 7 and 8 predict success in high school.
Middle Schools launch 9th grade success -- or struggle.
In 2011, Rhode Island's high-school graduation rate was 77.1%, just below the national average. The national graduation rate was 78%, also in 2011, the most recent year of comparable data among the states.
The other 5 New England states' rates were all higher, at least 83%.
Research shows that only 15% of those who repeat 9th grade go on to graduate and 36% of all students who drop out do so in the vulnerable 9th-grade year.
Given the importance of 9th-grade, efforts to improve graduation rates must begin before students enter high school.
So this story focuses on Rhode Island students who were first-time 6th graders in SY2007-2008. We examine their middle-school experiences to explore what aspects of grades 6, 7 and 8 predict success in high school.
We use 9th-grade students' promotion to the 10th grade, on schedule, as a measure of how well the middle-school years set students up for early high-school success. Our cohort includes Rhode Island's public-school 6th-graders in SY2007-08. Four years later our cohort either completed 9th grade, or they did not.
By the 10th grade our cohort has split into two groups:
DATA NOTE: In K-8 students who fail repeat the entire grade. In high school, students may be promoted even if they fail one or more courses. Consequently, some of our official "completers" may have failed a course or more.
Using research, we crafted 4 over-arching categories to investigate what factors appear to support promotion to the 10th grade. They are:
At least 3,300 (60%) of the sixth graders for whom we had addresses lived in a Census tract where a majority of adults over age 25 had a high school diploma or less.
Neighborhoods matter. When most adults in a neighborhood have low educational attainment, children might see low attainment as normalized. Nationally, 43% of adults over age 25 have a high school diploma or less.
Similarly children who live in concentrated poverty see few alternative models for themselves. While families have the strongest influence on children's expectations, communities are powerful too, in ways both encouraging and discouraging. Context matters to kids.
Also note the attribute: "Overcrowding." Rhode Island is the second-densest state in the U.S. Many of these data suggest sometimes-strained family circumstances that can limit adult attention to a child's academic needs.
Low-income students were almost twice as likely not to be promoted to the 10th grade. Poverty is a strong predictor of 9th-grade non-completion.
Males were more likely not to be promoted (11.6%) than females (8.0%).
As with Black students, twice as many Hispanic students were not promoted as Hispanic students who were. Poverty is highly correlated with race, so a high proportion of students of the low-income students non-completers were also students of color.
DATA NOTE: The percentages in each category reflect that group's proportion of the total number in that category. Thus, of the 100% of students who successfully completed 9th grade, 7.5% were Black. Of the 100% not promoted, 14.4% were Black -- or almost double.
In 1989, the seminal work Turning Points urged educators to tailor middle schools to the needs of early adolescents in the midst of roiling physical, emotional, and social changes.
The report states:
"Puberty is one of the most far-reaching biological upheavals in the life span."
To promote the resilience of these young people, Turning Points recommends "personalizing" their education with strong adult relationships, advisors and role models. Early adolescents need adults to help them with good decision-making and empathetic behavior.
The report warns that ignoring the realities of puberty makes circumstances harder for these students as well as for those who work with them. Without guidance, peer and personal issues easily distract these students from concentrating on academics.
During each middle-school year, an increasing number of students become chronically absent, which is to say they miss a month or more of school during the year.
Students can not learn if they are not in school.
Suspension rates also rise during the middle-school years, especially among those who were not promoted.
Once students start being suspended, many develop a tolerance to it. Behavior that leads to suspension is often a symptom of deeper issues that require social support. Also, school-suspension policies vary greatly among the schools, and are enforced according to human judgment, which can vary as well.
Note that according to Information Works, 73% of all middle-school suspensions were for only 5 of 39 infractions. The 5 are:
Students who feel that they are a valued member of a nurturing school community engage in learning more wholeheartedly than those who are afraid, disaffected or alienated. The SurveyWorks data allow us to see how students feel about their school's culture and climate.
ABOUT THE SURVEY: Annually, for most years since 1997, RI has administered an opinions-and-perceptions survey to parents, teachers and students. There was a break, however, that took place during our cohort's middle-school years. Therefore our cohort only took the survey in the 8th-grade; parents and teachers did not, until the following year. So the percentages are for those 8th-graders only. The data are not identifiable by individual; survey results are reported in the aggregate for the school's 8th-grade as a whole.
RI was the first in the nation to survey its school communities, extensively, to understand the culture and climate of each school. Research is clear that student outcomes, including achievement, improve with welcoming, helpful, socially-positive school environments.
Many 8th grade students, who have been in our cohort since 6th grade, score "substantially-below proficiency" (Level 1) on the statewide tests. Those test results strongly predict reduced chances of promotion to the 10th grade. (See bar chart below).
Students who reported that the NECAP test was "harder" than their regular school work were more likely to struggle on the test and had lower 9th grade promotion rates. (Click the arrow to scroll to the second picture below, a scatter plot).
After students have completed each multi-day NECAP subject test, they take a short survey that asks them about their experience with the test.
If you selected the two questions that have to do with "trying hard" -- on the lower attribute selector -- fewer than 10% of the students scoring at Level 1 or Level 2 in any school said they did not try hard to pass the test. Generally, students take the test seriously.
Without a doubt, the middle-school years can be rough waters. Even as children are making the emotional, physical, and social transition into adulthood, they're also ready for more academic challenge. So they move among 5 or 6 teachers specializing in subjects, instead of staying in one elementary classroom. It's a lot of change all at once.
This data story shows that the success of these transitional experiences during this critical juncture directly relates to graduation rates.
More specifically, the data reveal points of vulnerability that also offer opportunities to improve 9th-grade success. Each of the red-flag problems -- absenteeism, challenging behavior, poor test performance, suspensions -- needs attention more immediately so the issues do not linger or get worse. To be sure, by themselves schools can not meet all the changing needs of this age group. They'll have to work closely with parents, the community, and outside partners to help children get on a promising academic track and stay there.
Recommendations for school communities:
Personal Resilience and Social Skills
Nurturing, Safe Environment
Recommendations for Parents, in all realms: