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Taking action in sixth grade to prevent future dropouts

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A recent study looking for predictors of students likely to drop out has found that as early as sixth grade there are powerful warning signs pointing to children at extreme risk.

Following up on the findings, two dozen mini-grants have been awarded for individual, school-based dropout prevention efforts to be implemented in sixth-grade classrooms this fall.

Four risk factors appear to have a profound impact on whether or not a student ultimately drops out of Philadelphia high schools or graduates on time, according to the study – conducted by researchers at the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University.

A Philadelphia sixth-grader displaying any one of four risk factors – attendance below 80 percent, poor behavior marks, a failing math grade, or a failing English grade – had only a one in 10 chance of graduating on time, the researchers found. Even adding in students who finished school within a year after their original class, only two of ten students with a risk factor were able to graduate.

Using these risk factors as predictors, 40 percent of the students who will fail to complete high school in Philadelphia can be identified by sixth grade.

“As early as the sixth grade, you can identify kids at risk and who won’t graduate unless something is done,” said Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins, the co-author of the study along with Liza Herzog of PEF. “They’re just starting to fall off track, and there’s time to pull them back in.”

The research suggests the middle grades can be a crucial window of opportunity to intervene with academic and behavioral support and thereby increase the odds of timely grade promotion and on-time graduation.

Herzog and her colleagues at PEF and Johns Hopkins invited school staff to come up with innovative solutions to use in their respective sixth grade classrooms.

Principals from 23 conversion schools – those adding a grade – were awarded money for supports including software, tutors and supplies. Proposals had to demonstrate the capability to identify and track targeted sixth grade students using student data.

“We are working with the Education Fund to ensure their grants fund projects, that while small, will have a high probability of success and intensively target several students per school,” said Nancy Bratton, who joined the District in November 2004 as the Executive Director of the Middle Grades Office.

Bratton said the District core curriculum’s “stress on 90 minutes for reading and 90 minutes for math should definitely provide a better foundation and understanding for students which will be reflected in test scores and future graduation rates.”

This fall, principals are being urged to strictly monitor which sixth grade students are not attending school and why. Bratton also said a key academic support will be a shift from eighth grade to sixth grade in the focus of the recently hired Transition Support Tutors – literacy and math tutors who are paired with classroom teachers to provide extra support.

In the study, Herzog and Balfanz looked at the Philadelphia School District’s 11,000 sixth graders in the 1996-97 school year, identifying 3,500 who had one or more of the risk factors and following them through high school.

Not only did most drop out before graduation, but most experienced many years of low test scores and poor attendance as well as behavioral problems. Meanwhile, 69 percent of students in a comparison group graduated on time. The comparison group represents sixth graders with 90 percent or higher attendance, excellent behavior, passing grades in English and math, and scores at or above basic on the fifth-grade PSSA for math and reading.

“We would like the District to pay attention to the student support side, things like attendance and behavior, as well as the academic support side,” said Herzog. “There definitely was a need for specific supports for the different sets of kids, because the kids tended to display just one risk factor. This means resources need to be tailored to math or English or improving behavior.”

The District had already seen sobering data about the effects of weak academic preparation in middle grades. An earlier Johns Hopkins study found that students who enter high school two or more years behind grade level in math and reading had only a 50-50 chance of earning on-time promotion to the 10th grade. Those findings helped move the District to direct resources into a middle grades initiative.

CEO Paul Vallas announced the “Middle Grades Matter Initiative” in 2003, a partnership between the District, PEF, and GlaxoSmithKline to improve student preparation for high school.

More information on this study is available at www.philaedfund.org.