Melissa Roderick has been interested in the link between how well freshman do in high school and their graduation and drop-out rates for a long time—she wrote her dissertation on the topic. In 2003, based on years of research on the importance of freshman performance by Roderick and her colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research, CPS started using a freshman On-Track measure in their accountability system. A student is on-track if he or she has no more than one F in a core subject during a semester and ends 9th grade with five full course credits. Following CCSR ’s 2007 report “What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools,” the district added new freshmen academies and personnel in schools dedicated to finding ways to keep 9th grade students on-track.
As CPS pushed more and more resources to keeping freshmen ontrack, however, Roderick found herself getting worried. The research certainly showed a correlation between a student keeping on-track freshman year and graduating. But what if it wasn’t causal? “There’s enormous pressure for this kind of research, where we’re working so closely with CPS,” she says. “They’re making plans based on our work, but what if we’re wrong?”
So Roderick began looking into whether On-Track leads to graduation for a significant number of students. The results from her initial research are so strong that she has broadened the scope to look at a wider set of schools. “If we’ve got this right, it’s like we’ve solved the high school dropout crisis in America,” she says.
Looking closely at the data, Roderick and her team have found that when there’s been an improvement in freshman On-Track performance, the results are persistent, even after the attention and focus in freshman year is over. One of the first schools to noticeably move the needle for On-Track performance was Kenwood Academy. A 14 percentage point increase in the number of 9th graders on track in 2008 remained a 14 percentage points increase for the cohort the next year in 10th grade, and a 16 percentage point increase in the number of 11th graders with 17 or more credits at the end of that year.
Drilling down, the research showed the attention was having an effect for all types of students. When the ninth grade student cohort who had not done well on the major standardized test for 8th graders improved their On-Track from 45 percent to 66 percent at Kenwood, in 10th grade they increased from 30 percent to 54 percent. The middle achieving students had a 7 percentage point increase in 9th grade translate to a 8 percentage point increase in 10th. And the highest performing kids had a 18 percent 9th grade increase maintain as a 18 percentage point rise in 10th grade.
Roderick has found similar sustained success at three other CPS schools that were able to move the On-Track percentage in 2008, and initial indications look as good for another four schools that moved significantly in 2009. Her research team has combed through the data looking at things like the distribution of failing grades across classes and changes in attendance— factors that could call into question the validity of the change—and they’ve been consistently satisfied with the results.
“These aren’t just network schools; 40 CPS high schools have shown an increase in On-Track thanks to the attention that’s being paid to freshman performance,” Roderick says. “We’ve just got funding to expand this research—we’re going to look at more schools and be able to see if these kids are actually graduating from the earliest cohorts. We’re very excited about this work.”