By: Molly Pileggi, Lindsey Liu, and Alyn Turner

August 2020


Students who successfully transition to ninth grade are more likely to graduate from high school. In 2018, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) developed an indicator for being “on track” at the end of a high school student’s freshman year. As part of the district’s overall strategy for improving graduation rates, school administrators currently use the Ninth Grade On-Track indicator as an early marker of progress towards graduation and to identify students in need of intervention.

Using four cohorts of SDP data prior to its development and implementation, PERC found that one-third of first time freshman in 2013-2017 would have been flagged by On-Track indicator as “off-track” after their first year of high school.1 Although the On-Track indicator was not yet in place, the reports serve as a benchmark against which progress can be measured.

Building upon this prior work, this report examines two of those same cohorts of off-track freshman in the expected graduating classes of 2017 and 2018, following them over time to understand which students were able to graduate and when they got back on track. Similar to our prior work, these findings describe student experiences that pre-date the establishment of SDP’s On-Track indicator. Thus, this report serves as baseline for the district to assess progress toward efforts to improve graduation rates through schools’ use of the On-Track indicator to identify and connect students to supports.

We also assess graduation rates for students at varying degrees of being off-track and for subgroups of students and schools to examine compounding risk factors for off-track students. We examine graduation rates for students at varying degress of being off-track, i.e., what it means to be securely or marginally on track versus marginally, moderately, or very off-track at the end of 9th grade. The subgroup analyses draw attention to disparities in recovery from 9th grade off-track status and include student subgroups defined by gender, race/ethnicity, low-income status, 9th grade special education status and English Learner status, and 9th grade attendence and suspensions. We also examine the graduation rates for off-track students separately for those attending schools with small and larger enrollments and across school admission types.

Finally, we examine when students get back on track and graduation rates of students who leverage credit recovery to get back on track. These findings apply to subsamples of students for whom data can support the analyses, thus are exploratory and require additional research to understand more fully.

The goal of examining these patterns is to understand which off-track students and which schools might need the most support. This report offers a first-time look at graduation rates for off-track students in SDP. We anticipate the findings will be informative to school and district administrators working to support high school students who fall off-track in ninth grade. These findings raise questions about whether some students and schools may benefit from more resources and/or different systems or approaches than others. The findings also point to the need for more research to examine why some students in some schools recover at higher rates than others and build evidence for effective interventions for getting students back on track.

Key Findings

  • Compared to 82% of on-track ninth graders, only 57% of off-track ninth graders graduated on time—a difference of about 25 percentage points. This is a considerable, statistically significant difference and reinforces the utility of the On-Track indicator for flagging students as at risk of failing to graduate.

  • Among off-track 9th graders who were able to get back on track to graduate, two-thirds did so in 12th grade, possibly reflecting historical district priorities in place at the time these data were collected to target efforts to get seniors to graduate. A third of students got back on track during earlier grades. Of course, all students who got back on track in 12th grade graduated. Among those who got back on track before 12th grade, 85% stayed on track and graduated on time, suggesting that early intervention is valuable, though more research is needed to unpack intervention timing. An additional area of exploration is the impact of the development and implementation of the district’s OnTrack indicator in 2018 for motivating earlier intervention.

  • Off-track males had a graduation rate of 51%, nearly 12 percentage points lower than the graduation rate of 62% for off-track females. Males were also more likely to be offtrack than their female peers. 2 The double disadvantage of males is troubling and highlights that substantial work remains to be done to improve their educational experiences.

  • Very poor attendance and suspensions are additional warning signals for off-track students. The graduation rate of off-track students receiving one or more suspensions in 9th grade was almost 10 percentage points lower than their off-track peers with no suspensions. Very poor attendance was an even stronger predictor of graduation. The graduation rate of off-track students with very poor attendance (average daily attendance below 80%) was 27 percentage points lower than their off-track peers with strong attendance (90% or higher average daily attendance).

  • Off-track students enrolled in Citywide and Special Admission high schools had substantially higher graduation rates than their off-track peers enrolled in Neighborhood high schools. The graduation rates at Neighborhood schools trailed those at other schools by more than 20 percentage points.

  • The farther off track a student was at the end of 9th grade, the lower their graduation rate. The graduation rate for students missing just one of the five indicators of being ontrack was about 69%, compared to rates of about 50% of students missing 2 or 3 requirements and about 27% for students missing 4 or 5.

  • Only 20% of off-track 9th grade students in the Class of 2018 enrolled in credit recovery in 2017-18, though those who did had a much higher graduation rate than those who did not. Students who recovered credits during their senior year had a graduation rate of 84%, nearly 30 percentage points higher than their peers who did not attempt credit recovery in 2017-18. Students who attempted to regain credits, even if they were not successful, had a graduation rate of almost 12 percentage points higher than students who did not use credit recovery that year.

Policy and Implications

  • The findings in this report reinforce SDP’s recent adoption and use of the Ninth Grade On-Track indicator as a strategy for identifying and supporting off-track students to improve graduation rates. Of course, because the data presented here are correlational, we are cautious to not make strong claims that graduation rates would improve if recovery rates increased among off-track students. We encourage the district to build upon this body of research by examining the underlying reasons why students fall off track in 9th grade and evaluate efforts to help these students recover.

  • While our report does not address what kinds of supports work for which off-track students, it suggests the need for targeted supports that attend to the reasons for increased risk of failing to recover for certain students. Importantly, findings suggest that attendance and suspension rates are additional warning signs that could identify offtrack students for more targeted supports. Additionally, off-track male students were at a moderately greater risk of failing to graduate than their female peers. These disparities in rates of recovery call into question a one-size-fits-all approach to helping students get back and stay on track.

  • The district should consider supporting principals, teachers, and other school support team members in understanding the implications of the degree to which students are off-track at the end of 9th grade and adjust tracking systems to expand the indicator to include “marginal,” “moderate,” and “far off-track” categories. Our study does not examine school efforts to get students back on track nor does it document school-based approaches to supporting off-track students. However, it is likely that the causes of course failure for marginally off-track student are different than those for students who are far off-track. Thus, a one-size-fits-all approach will have muted effects, and schools armed with information about student’s degree of off-track may be able to tailored supports that address variable root causes.

  • Helping students recover from being off-track will likely require different solutions in different school settings. Our finding that off-track students in Neighborhood schools have a graduation rate that is substantially lower than their peers in Special Admit or Citywide schools deserves more attention. Though our report does not address reasons for differences, it could be that Neighborhood schools, many of which have large proportions of off-track 9th graders, might need additional capacity or different systems than schools with smaller off-track cohorts to help their students recover.