By: Austin Slaughter, Ruth Curran Neild, Molly Crofton

July 2018


Ninth grade is a critical juncture for students—and can be a jarring transition. Even students with a strong track record in the middle grades can experience academic difficulty, and those who enter high school with poor course grades, weak attendance, or behavior problems are especially at risk. An early misstep can have lasting implications: students who fall off track at the beginning of the school year may find it difficult to recover, and ninth graders who fail to earn the required number of academic credits are at elevated risk of dropping out.

To support these most vulnerable students as they start ninth grade, high schools first need a way to identify them. This involves two things: first, having access to students’ school record data from the middle grades and, second, knowing which student characteristics are most predictive of falling off track in ninth grade. Increasingly, high schools have ready access to data systems and dashboards that enable them to look at the prior school performance of new students. Less available are empirical analyses that pinpoint which aspects of students’ prior performance are the best clues that they will struggle in ninth grade.

This study examines what can be known about entering ninth graders, based on their eighth grade school records, that can inform high schools about students’ likelihood of being on track at the end of their first year. Specifically, the study uses de-identified student record data for two cohorts of SDP ninth graders to identify the strongest predictors of being on track to graduation at the end of ninth grade.

The research questions are:

  • What are the associations between key eighth grade student characteristics and being on track at the end of ninth grade?

  • Which eighth grade student characteristics, or combinations of characteristics, are most predictive of being on track at the end of ninth grade?

  • How do high schools differ in the percentage of students whose eighth grade records indicate that they are at highest risk for falling off track?

Key Findings

  • Ninth-grade on-track rates varied by eighth-grade GPA, attendance, suspensions, and demographic characteristics. More than 90 percent of students who earned an A in any eighth grade core subject were on track at the end of ninth grade. Although earning a D or an F in a core subject was relatively uncommon, students who earned these grades were more likely to be off track than on track. Less than one-third of students with the weakest eighth grade attendance – those who attended less than 80 percent of the time, or missed at least seven weeks of school – were on track at the end of ninth grade. Few students (14.1 percent) received an 8th grade out-of-school suspension, but of those who did, fewer than 50 percent were on track at the end of ninth grade. None of the demographic characteristics predicted on-track rates as well as course grades, attendance, or suspensions.

  • Of the available student records information, eighth-grade core-subject GPA was the best predictor of ninth grade on-track status. This was followed by attendance and the number of out-of-school suspensions. However, knowing an eight grade student’s attendance and number of suspensions provided only a small amount of additional information when predicting ninth grade performance.

  • A set of four eighth-grade characteristics can identify about 30 percent of students who fall off track in ninth grade. These characteristics – what we are calling the Eighth Grade Predictors (8GPs) – were: (1) earning final course grades of D or F in all eighth grade courses; (2) failing a core subject; (3) attending school less than 80 percent of the time; and (4) receiving two or more out-of-school suspensions in eighth grade. Sixty-eight percent of students with at least one 8GP fell off track in ninth grade.

  • In all key student subgroups, at least 60 percent of students with at least one 8GP were off track at the end of ninth grade. For example, 70 percent of Black students and 68.3 percent of White students with an 8GP were off track, but a smaller percentage of Asian students (60.9 percent) and Hispanic/Latinx students (64.2 percent) were off track. Likewise, 8GPs were less accurate for females than males: 61.9 percent of females with at least one 8GP were off track, compared to 72.8 percent of males.

  • 8GPs were more accurate for ninth grade students in some high schools than others but, in general, were more accurate for schools with higher percentages of off track students. At some schools the percentage of students with an 8GP who were off track was lower than 60 percent, while at other schools, 80 percent or more of those with an 8GP were off track.

  • High schools vary widely in the number of ninth graders with 8GPs. At 23 schools, less than 10 percent of the first-time ninth graders had any 8GP; at 22 schools, the figure was between 10 and 29 percent; and at 9 schools, the percentage was 30 or more. Schools with lowest percentages of ninth graders with an 8GP also tended to have the lowest percentages of ninth graders who fell off track to graduation.

Policy and Implications

  • Because high schools face different percentages of students with 8GPs, they likely require different resources and strategies to help these students stay on track from the earliest days of high school. Schools with just one student entering with an 8GP may assign a guidance counselor or team of teachers to monitor that student’s attendance, behavior, and class performance. Other schools may need extra staffing resources (counselors, tutors, or social service providers) to help students improve their behavior, attendance, and homework habits, and to provide additional academic support.

  • Schools serving middle grades students can use these indicators to identify students who need interventions before starting high school. The findings in this report suggest a particular urgency for identifying and implementing the educational, social, and/or health services that will help these students get on a new path. Interventions do not need to wait until high school; the sooner steps are taken to address these students’ problems, the more opportunities there are for a fresh start.