Research Points To Ninth Grade As The Most Important High School Year

Researchers have found that ninth grade is the most important year to predict whether a student drops out or stays in school. Now educators have started increasingly focusing on the ninth grade as the year that determines whether a young person will move on successfully.

The research, published in the journal Education, revealed that ninth graders have the lowest grade point average, the most missed classes, the majority of failing grades, and more misbehavior referrals than any other high-school grade level, writes Michele Willens of The Atlantic.

According to the research by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, ninth grade has increasingly become a "bottleneck" for students. It found that "in 1970, there were 3% fewer tenth graders than ninth graders; by 2000, that share had risen to 11%."

"More and more of us are realizing that it's the make or break year for many 14- and 15-year-olds," said Jon Zaff, director of the Center for Promise at Tufts University. "It's a time when the cognitive, emotional, and physical are all coming together. The schools are likely new environments, and the students have more autonomy and more homework."

Zaff said that "we are ending up with something now called the ninth-grade bulge", meaning a glut of students who have to repeat the grade. They are stigmatized socially as well as academically, which can also lead to their finding it easier to just give up.

Diane Ravitch, author of Reign of Error, said she is suspicious about the motivations behind schools' growing interest in ninth-grade performance, but does not deny that the ninth grade is a pivotal moment in a student's education.

"Many schools allow students to advance ready or not, and when they reach the ninth the stakes are higher. The high-stakes testing starts in the tenth grade so kids are being held back not for their own sake but to protect their school's statistics. If the focus were really on the students, people would be thinking creatively about how to help them instead of thinking if them as data points," Ravitch said.

According to a detailed guide from the National High School Center, more students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school.

A disproportionate number of students, who are held back in ninth grade, subsequently drop out, the guide describes. The biggest risk factor for failing ninth is the number of absences during the first 30 days. Missing more than 10% is cause for concern, according to the guide.

The Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins School of Education is recommending something called the freshman seminar for students in their first year of high school.

The program offers learning materials and training specialists to aid students in study and social skills. Some students use it during homeroom or advisory periods, some during special enhancement periods.

"We try to build some relevance into their experience to go along with the regular curriculum," said Mary Maushard, communications director for the Everyone Graduates Center. "So many of these ninth graders—particularly in high-poverty areas—just don't see any reason to stay in school."

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