By: Molly Pileggi, Kendra Strouf
This brief is an addendum to an earlier report, Getting on Track to Graduation, published in May 2018 by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (Crofton and Neild, 2018). Focusing on two cohorts of first-time ninth grade students (the Classes of 2019 and 2020), Getting on Track to Graduation examined the extent to which students earned the number and type of course credits required to be considered on-track to graduation. This brief extends analyses from the earlier report with data from two additional cohorts of first-time freshmen (the Classes of 2017 and 2018) to better understand whether the patterns described in the original report have been consistent over time.
The ninth grade is a critical year for students. In 2018, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) established a new Ninth Grade On-Track Definition. This metric defines which course credits a student must have earned by the end of the first year of high school to be considered on track to graduation. Philadelphia students who are on track at the end of ninth grade according to this definition are approximately twice as likely to graduate within four years as those who are off track at the end of ninth grade (Wills, 2018).
Because Getting on Track to Graduation found an increase in on-track rates between the Class of 2019 and Class of 2020, readers wanted to know whether the increase was different from the small year-to-year fluctuations common for education outcomes. This brief addresses that question with data from two additional cohorts of first-time freshmen (the Classes of 2017 and 2018). Readers can find details of the data and variables used for this analysis in Appendix A and more detailed findings on the Classes of 2019 and 2020 in the original Getting on Track to Graduation report.
It is important for education agencies and the communities they serve to have access to analyses of trendlines in key education outcomes. For this reason, PERC hopes to update analyses of the on track rate regularly through briefs like this one. Readers can also see three years of ninth grade on track rates for individual schools on the SDP dashboard. To do this, navigate to https://dashboards.philasd.org/extensions/philadelphia/index.html, choose a high school, and select “College/Career” from the menu at the top of the page.
Approximately 66 percent of first-time ninth graders were on track across all four cohorts of students, but on-track rates were highest in the most recent cohort (the Class of 2020).
Across all four years studied, 65 to 68 percent of first-time ninth graders were on track to graduate at the end of their first year of high school. Members of the Class of 2020, who were ninth graders in 2016-17, had the highest on-track rate compared to the three other cohorts. It will be important to look at subsequent cohorts of data to determine whether the three percentage point increase between the Class of 2019 and the Class of 2020 is the start of an upward trend or a larger than-typical fluctuation of the type seen each year.
In the Class of 2020, off-track students were closer to being on track than students in other years.
There are five distinct requirements that a student must meet to be considered on track at the end of the first year of high school. To understand how much ground an off-track student would need to make up, we defined three categories of off-track students:
• Almost on-track: Students who were missing one of the five requirements. • Moderately off-track: Students who were missing two or three requirements. • Far off-track: Students who were missing four or five requirements.
In the Class of 2020, off-track students were more commonly in the almost on-track category compared to off-track students in other cohorts. Almost half of the off-track students in the Class of 2020 (48 percent) were missing one requirement only, compared to 39 to 42 percent of students in other cohorts. Compared to the other cohorts, the Class of 2020 also had lower percentages of off-track students who were moderately and far off-track.
The percentage of almost on-track students missing the science requirement increased in each cohort.
Among the almost on-track students—that is, those missing one requirement only —a higher percentage were missing the science credit requirement in each successive cohort. In contrast, the percentage of almost on-track students missing the math requirement has decreased since the Class of 2018, while the percentage missing English or social studies varied across the cohorts without any clear pattern.
A student could be missing a requirement because they failed a course or because they did not attempt a full credit in a required subject area. Not taking a credit in a core ninth-grade subject might be an intentional decision for an individual student or may reflect curriculum choices of their school. Box 2 explains how schools’ decisions about whether to offer science to ninth graders or students’ decisions about whether to take a science course might affect our findings about almost on-track students.
The Class of 2020 on-track rates of Black and Hispanic/Latino students improved more than the rates of White students.
In our prior report, Getting on Track to Graduation, we showed that there were differences in on track patterns by race and ethnicity. These same patterns existed across all four student cohorts examined here (see Appendix B for detailed findings). Asian students were most often on track, and those Asian students who were off track were most often missing only one requirement. Black and Hispanic/Latino students had the lowest on-track rates across all four cohorts of students.
However, the increase in the percentage of Black and Hispanic/Latino students who were on track in the Class of 2020 was larger than the increase in percentage of White students. This suggests that the improvement in the on-track rate in the Class of 2020 was driven more by increases for Black and Hispanic/Latino students than for White students.
Other on-track patterns by demographics, special education status, and family income level were consistent across the four cohorts studied.
In Getting on Track to Graduation, we also showed differences in on-track patterns between other student subgroups. Looking across the four cohorts of students, we found the size of those differences varied somewhat but told basically the same story. In addition, we found that almost all student subgroups had higher on-track rates in the Class of 2020 compared to the other cohorts. This tells us that the increased on-track rate found in the Class of 2020 came from improvements among almost all subsets of students. The findings by student subgroup are summarized below, and more detail can be found in Appendix B.
“The increased on-track rate found in the Class of 2020 came from improvements among almost all subsets of students.”
Gender. Across all cohorts, a higher percentage of females were on track compared to males. The difference ranged from 8 to 14 percentage points but was not clearly increasing or decreasing over time. Among off-track students, males were more often farther off track than females.
Special education status. In each cohort, students receiving special education services were on track at a substantially lower rate than their peers who were not receiving services. The difference ranged from 18 to 26 percentage points over the four cohorts studied. It is important to note that special education students might have modifications to credit earning requirements in their IEPs. In those cases, the On-Track definition may not be appropriate for those students. We did not have data available to identify students with those modifications, and for this reason, our sample for this analysis included all students who attempted at least one credit, regardless of special education status.
In addition to having lower on-track rates, the special education students who were off-track were more often farther off-track than their regular education peers. In contrast to all other trends, there
was some evidence that this trend was widening. The Class of 2020 had higher rates of far off-track special education students, while all other subsets of students had lower rates of far off-track students in that year.
English learner status. Across all four cohorts studied, English learners were on track at slightly lower rates than their peers, by 1 to 5 percentage points. Off-track English learners, however, were less often far off-track than English-proficient students. The difference ranged from 5 to 10 percentage points across the four cohorts studied.
Family income status. Students from families eligible for federal financial assistance through TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) or SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) were on track at lower rates than their peers. The difference ranged from 6 to 18 percentage points across the four cohorts studied, but it did not show a clear trend of increasing or decreasing over time. Off-track students from families eligible for TANF or SNAP were also slightly farther off-track than their peers. Specifically, these students had 2 to 5 percentage points higher far off-track rates and 3 to 7 percentage points lower almost on-track rates compared to their peers.
Neighborhood high schools had the lowest on-track rates but also had the largest improvement in the Class of 2020.
Across all four cohorts, about 10 percent of students attended a comprehensive Career and Technical Education (CTE) school. The remaining 90 percent of students were fairly evenly split between neighborhood high schools and citywide or special admission schools. Given their different models, we examined how the on-track rates varied at these three categories of schools.
In each year studied, neighborhood schools had the lowest on-track rates with values ranging from 49 to 61 percent, signaling that those schools are the ones with the greatest need for support. However, neighborhood schools also showed the largest improvement with the Class of 2020, indicating that they were the main source of the increasing on-track rate in that year.
The school types with higher off-track rates also had a higher percentage of students missing more than one requirement. Across all four cohorts, 24 to 31 percent of off-track students at neighborhood schools were far off-track, compared to 10 to 14 percent at CTE schools and 8 to 18 percent at special admission and citywide schools.
“Neighborhood schools showed the largest improvement with the Class of 2020, indicating that they were the main source of the increasing on-track rate in that year.”
Policy and Implications
SDP and its partners can continue to track these indicators over time, beyond the four years examined in this brief. By analyzing later cohorts, we will be able to understand, for example, whether the improved on-track rate seen in the Class of 2020 was the start of a consistent, positive trend. As SDP and other stakeholders undertake additional efforts to support ninth graders, it will be important to examine whether outcomes are changing, which schools are driving any changes, and whether some subgroups of students are improving more than others. These data can help Philadelphians to understand not only whether indicators are moving in the right direction but also what might be driving the improvement and where more effort might be needed.