Eighth graders with high test scores generally perform well in high school. But a recent study has found 8th-grade achievement is not the best way to predict whether a high school student will graduate on time.

More significant is the number of credits earned and courses failed during freshmen year, according to a report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. And it’s not just students failing three or more courses who need quick attention, says Elaine Allensworth, who co-authored the study. “Just failing one or two semesters of a course lowers the chance of graduating.”

In fact, failing just two semesters freshman year cut the chance of graduating on time almost in half.

When freshmen fail, high schools must intervene quickly, as even talented students may never recover, Consortium researchers say. Furthermore, failure rates vary significantly even among schools that serve similar students. That suggests that school climate and structure play a role in whether students pass or fail, the researchers add.

CPS officials are taking note of the findings. After the study was released in June, Arne Duncan requested 150 copies to distribute to principals, although by early August his office had not yet done so.

Area 24 Instructional Officer Cynthia Barron moved faster, e-mailing the report to her principals for discussion at a meeting. The report “brings a sense of urgency” to an issue that principals were already working on, she says.

The Consortium began studying freshmen failure rates about 10 years ago, and in 1999, it developed an indicator to measure the percentage of freshmen who are on-track to graduate within four years. Freshmen are considered on-track if they earn at least five credits and no more than one ‘F’ in semester grades for core classes. By 2002, the district adopted the indictor as one of several criteria to rate high school performance.

According to the study, 81 percent of freshmen who were on-track in 2000 graduated four years later. Only 22 percent of off-track freshmen graduated on time, the Consortium found. Overall, a higher percentage of freshmen are on-track now compared to 10 years ago.

The Consortium’s latest study is the first time the on-track indicator has been proven to predict graduation rates better than 8th-grade standardized test scores.

Analyzing the reasons for freshmen failure is the first step toward raising graduation rates, says Allensworth. Schools should investigate whether kids are more likely to fail in certain subjects, when taught by certain teachers or at a particular time of day, she suggests. They should also examine the 8th-grade test scores of freshmen who fail. “If even the high achievers are having problems, then something is going on at that school that they need to figure out,” she says.

Schools make a difference

On-track rates varied significantly among schools, according to the Consortium. Only some of the disparity can be attributed to the students’ backgrounds.

At the bottom of the 2004 list was Fenger in Roseland, a low-income neighborhood high school with only 28 percent of its freshmen on track. (The district average was 58 percent.) Two schools tied for the top position that year, with 97 percent of their freshman on-track. One, Northside College Prep in North Park, is the city’s most selective magnet high school. The other top-ranked school was Spry Community Links in Little Village, which enrolls almost all low-income students.

A tiny school with only 100 students, Spry operates on a year-round schedule with a heavier courseload so students can graduate in three years. Parents and students must agree in advance to commit to the intensive program, says Principal Carlos Azcoitia.

“This is a no-failure high school,” Azcoitia says. “Any student who needs assistance can come in on Saturday or in the mornings before school. We’re small, so if a student isn’t here, we immediately call mom or dad.”

Some neighborhood high schools significantly outperformed others. Amundson High in Lincoln Square had 75 percent of its freshmen on-track last year, while Taft High in Norwood Park, which serves more advantaged students, had only 59 percent.

When the Consortium accounted for student characteristics—race, economics, gender, 8th-grade test scores and age when entering high school—there still were significant differences among schools. Some lower-performing schools, such as Harper with a 52 percent on-track rate and Englewood at 54 percent, performed better than expected considering their student populations. Fenger, however, still landed at the bottom of the list.

Why kids fail

Principals and teachers interviewed by Catalyst Chicago identified a range of reasons for freshmen failure, and some possible solutions.

Kelvyn Park English teacher Jesse Senechal believes that some high-achieving 8th graders struggle in high school because there’s less adult support. “They see a division teacher 10 minutes a day and then have seven other teachers,” he says. “They become anonymous. If they don’t have strong support from home, they can make bad decisions.”

Senechal watched one student who was a solid 8th-grader get involved with a gang last year and flounder academically. However, Senechal also has seen the reverse, previously low-achieving students who turned around as freshmen.

Senechal was one of two teachers last year in a new social justice academy for 50 randomly selected Kelvyn Park freshmen. Students spent a big chunk of the day together and worked in the community alongside adult mentors.

The social justice students had lower failure rates and higher attendance rates than did the Kelvyn Park freshman class as a whole. “We had a number of kids who came in looking like students who are bound to start failing classes, and then they turned around,” he explains. “One girl had such a strong connection to a parent mentor . … it sparked her, and her grades started coming up; her attendance improved.”

Jackie Barge, a science teacher at Payton High, a selective magnet, says high-achieving 8th-graders sometimes struggle in high school “because they’ve done well in grammar school without a lot of effort.”

At an elite school such as Payton, students also have to adjust to the increased competition. “Here, they aren’t the top dog anymore.”

At Payton, 90 percent of freshmen were on-track in 2004.

Payton offers after-school tutoring to help students catch up. “You have to look at the kids as [individuals] and try to figure out the problem (Is it organization? Is it content?) and try to connect with the parents and figure out a plan,” says Barge.

Principal Carlos Munoz of Amundsen High says the biggest reason freshmen fail is because they don’t go to class. When that happens, parents are called in for a conference and students must then collect their teacher signatures each day to verify their attendance.

“A lot of students need to know that someone cares and will stay on them,” says Munoz. “This system also makes the parents responsible, so they can’t say they didn’t know their child was cutting.”

At Kelvyn Park, both neighborhood association members and teachers visit the homes of students with excessive absences. Still, kids fall through the cracks. Kelvyn Park’s on-track rate in 2003-04 was about average at 57 percent.

One Kelvyn Park freshman cut algebra about 20 times last year to join friends who were also cutting. Rita, who didn’t want her last name used, says her algebra teacher kept after her to show up, but, “I didn’t care.” She retook algebra in summer school.

Not surprisingly, the Consortium study found a strong correlation between attendance and pass rates. Principals who spoke to Catalyst reported the lowest attendance first and last periods.

Citywide, on-track rates rose from 48 percent in 1995 to 58 percent in 2004, largely because students are enrolling in and taking more courses as freshmen, the Consortium found.

“The numbers are pretty impressive,” says study co-author and Consortium Executive Director John Easton. “They’re taking and passing more courses.”

Jody Temkin is a Catalyst contributing editor. E-mail her at editor@catalyst-chicago.org.

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