Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

Falling Off Track during the Transition to High School: What We Know and What Can Be Done
Ruth Curran Nield

How Prevalent Is Getting Off Track in Ninth Grade?

Assessments of the prevalence of ninth graders getting off track to graduation have drawn on three types of evidence: the Common Core of Data (CCD), a federally created database of student enrollments by grade and school for publicly funded schools; state reports of the percentage of students repeating ninth grade; and nationally representative survey data. Each of these data sources has strengths and weaknesses. Because each data source relies on reports of grade enrollments rather than credits earned (the latter being a better on-track indicator), these data are most helpful for ruling out the possibility that academic difficulty in ninth grade is limited to a particular type of district or geographic locale. Further, some estimates can be biased by population growth or decline within a geographic area and by student movement between public and private schools. Taken together, however, these data sources point to the transition to high school as a place in the educational progression where students across the United States are at increased risk of getting "stuck."

Evidence from National Databases of Student Enrollment
Comparing the number of students enrolled in ninth grade with the number in eighth grade during the previous school year and tenth grade during the subsequent year provides a rough indication of the extent to which ninth graders are not promoted to the next grade. Enrollment data from the CCD indicate that during the 2003–04 school year, half of the school districts in the United States had a tenth-grade enrollment that was no greater than 95 percent of ninth-grade enrollment. In one-quarter of the districts, tenth-grade enrollment was no greater than 90 percent of that of ninth grade.16

Drawing on the same data set, Walt Haney and several colleagues show that during the thirty years from 1970 to 2000, ninth grade increasingly became a primary bottleneck grade. In 1970, there were 3 percent fewer tenth graders than ninth graders; by 2000, that share had risen to 11 percent. Some evidence indicates that the increasing number of ninth graders is at least partly the result of statewide exit exams, many of which are given in tenth grade; I discuss this evidence later. Some states had ninth- to tenth-grade attrition rates that were considerably higher than the national average: for example, Florida reported enrolling 24 percent fewer tenth graders in 2000–01 than ninth graders the previous year, and South Carolina followed closely with 23 percent fewer ninth graders.17

Evidence from the State Reports
Yearly data from 1990 to 2000 on retention by grade, obtained from some twenty-five state departments of education by Robert Hauser, Carl Frederick, and Megan Andrew, show a similar pattern of ninth grade as a major point at which students get "stuck." In the vast majority of states and years in that sample, more than 10 percent of the students were not promoted to tenth grade. Notably, in this sample of state-reported data, the share of students who were not promoted from eighth grade to ninth grade increased rather dramatically from 1990 to 2000.18

Evidence from Nationally Representative Surveys
Using nationally representative data from the Current Population Survey (CPS), a household survey of educational and economic indicators conducted by the United States Bureau of the Census, Hauser, Frederick, and Andrew found that grade retention is highest in kindergarten and first grade, followed by a moderate gradual decline from second to fifth grade, a slight elevation in the middle grades, and a spike in ninth grade.19 Their analyses suggest that, from 1996 through 2003, approximately 3 percent of ninth graders were not promoted. This estimated retention rate differs considerably from estimates from the Haney study and state reports, both of which suggest that approximately 10 percent of ninth graders are not promoted. One explanation for the lower CPS estimates is that they rely on parent reports of whether the student has been retained in grade. Many parents responding to the survey may assume that a student in the second year of high school is automatically a tenth grader, even though the student who has failed to earn sufficient credits may still be classified as a ninth grader by the school district. CPS estimates of ninth-grade retention also may be lower because the survey covers families with children in private schools as well as those whose children are enrolled in the public system.