The Pivotal Year

Susan Black
February 1, 2004

Ninth grade is a "make-it or break-it year," says one superintendent. Last year, about a quarter of the ninth-graders in his urban district didn't make it. They skipped classes, flunked courses, broke school rules, and got suspended -- but not promoted to 10th grade.

A school counselor in the same district explains the so-called ninth-grade slump. "Some kids go into shock when they enter ninth grade," she says, noting that many 14-year-olds run into serious academic trouble during the first semester. "Kids who give up on school -- and on themselves -- sink quickly. Most never recover."

High schools that include grades 9-12 present the greatest problems for young adolescents, according to researchers Nancy Mizelle and Judith Irvin. The transition from middle school to high school can be rough, they say. Suddenly, many ninth-graders find themselves struggling to navigate large, impersonal, competitive environments -- far different from their more comfortable middle schools. Many students make a smooth transition, but others get lost in a maze of corridors, fast-paced schedules, and rigorous course requirements.

Nearly all students enter ninth grade with high aspirations, but many lose their self-confidence by the time they get their first report card. Many told Mizelle their major difficulty was figuring out how to study and manage their time. Overall, they said, ninth grade turned out to be "a lot more difficult and demanding" than they had anticipated.

Looking back at ninth grade

Nearly 20 years ago, the National Association of Secondary School Principals asked, "How fares ninth grade?" For answers, NASSP commissioned middle school experts John Lounsbury and J. Howard Johnston to conduct an extensive study of ninth grades in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

Shadowing ninth-graders and observing their daily school experiences, Lounsbury and Johnston discovered a disconcerting mismatch between school policies and practices and 14-year-olds' developmental needs.

Most instruction was teacher centered, with teachers lecturing and students taking notes and completing assignments. Ability grouping and tracking were common, as was the 40- to 50-minute class schedule. And, Lounsbury and Johnston found, most high schools offered little or no guidance to help ninth-graders adjust academically and socially. As a result, many fell by the wayside, feeling that school was "pointless and endless."

Even in well-managed high schools that appeared to be running smoothly, the researchers said, "something was missing" -- especially in the "flat and narrow" teacher-student interactions.

Eight years after the NASSP study, Anne Wheelock's 1993 study of high school reform found similar problems. Wheelock described ninth grade as "a minefield for the most vulnerable students," especially those who become disengaged and discouraged and who fail to develop strong bonds with teachers and their school.

Tedious lessons, overcrowded classrooms, and indifferent teachers were among the factors Wheelock found that diminished students' already fragile attachment to school. And when students feel their teachers and schools are uncaring and inhospitable, she said, the attachment is easily broken.

In 1985, Lounsbury and Johnston predicted the ninth grade would "continue to drift" and "mirror the worst of outmoded high school practices that do little to foster positive learning for all students." Have their warnings come true? A new wave of research suggests they have.

The ninth-grade bulge

Ninth grade is a pivotal year that determines which students will prevail and which will fail to finish high school, according to Jay Hertzog of Pennsylvania's Slippery Rock University and Lena Morgan with the State University of West Georgia.

Their 1998 study of 450 high schools and their feeder middle schools shows that failing ninth grade spells doom for about 25 percent of ninth-graders nationwide. But some schools far exceed this average -- failing up to 45 percent of their ninth-grade class. "Ninth grade," says Hertzog, "has become the holding tank for high schools."

The holding tank is responsible for what Walt Haney of Boston College's Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy calls "the ninth-grade bulge" -- the larger number of students enrolled in grade nine compared with the number enrolled in grade eight the previous year. The bulge indicates that many students are being retained in ninth grade and fewer are going on to 10th, 11th, and 12th grades.

If a school district accepts 1,000 students into ninth grade and holds 45 percent of them back at the end of the year, for example, the next ninth-grade class will soar to 1,450 students and the 10th grade class will dwindle to 550. And a number of the 1,450 ninth-graders, especially those who were also retained in earlier grades, will find their way out the door -- some to alternative schools, some dropping out for good.

In a study presented at a conference sponsored by Harvard University's Civil Rights Project and Northeastern University's Institute on Race and Justice, Haney said that "grade nine is a key valve in the education pipeline and is closing for many students, especially minority students." As it turns out, African-American ninth-grade boys fare the worst, he said. Those who fail to graduate are "far more likely to end up in prison."

Haney said high schools are increasingly "squeezing students out of the education pipeline" by flunking more students and forcing them to repeat ninth grade and, in some states, by actively pushing students out of school to improve test scores.

The numbers Haney presents speak for themselves: During the 1970s, attrition of students between grades nine and 10 was 5 percent or less. In the mid-1980s, the attrition rate between these grades began a steady increase, reaching 10 percent by the mid-1990s. That's 400,000 students nationwide each year.

Portraits of ninth grade

As these studies suggest, ninth-graders in many school districts run the serious risk of failing and leaving school. Pittsburgh is a case in point. District records for 1997-98 paint a dismal portrait:
| Almost a quarter of ninth-graders (23 percent) didn't pass enough courses to be promoted to 10th grade.
| Only 78 percent of ninth-graders attended school regularly, compared with 92.5 percent in first grade, 86.3 in eighth grade, and 80.9 percent in 12th grade.
| Ninth-graders were almost five times as likely to receive failing grades (26 percent) as eighth-graders (6 percent).
| Numbers of over-age students were highest in ninth grade. Nearly 14 percent of ninth-graders were 16.5 years old or older by the end of the school year.

Haney's September 2003 testimony before New York's Senate Standing Committee on Education paints a similarly bleak picture for New York state. His analysis shows that attrition rates between grades nine and 10 have increased sharply over the past decade statewide. In turn, graduation rates have plummeted: New York ranks 45th among all states in graduation rates, followed by Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

"The proportion of ninth-grade students who repeat the grade ... can be an important indicator of future dropout rates," the New York State Education Department wrote in its June 2002 State of Learning report. Haney's research in Texas and other states supports this claim. His studies, conducted in 2000 and 2001, show that 70 to 80 percent of students who fail to pass ninth grade will not graduate from high school.

Promising reforms

Many high schools try to pave the way for ninth-graders, but one-shot orientation programs or remedial summer sessions do little to solve ninth grade's deeply rooted problems. (For more on transitions, see "The Next Step," ASBJ, November 1999.)

More promising -- but also more challenging to implement -- are whole-school reforms, says Kerri Kerr, an educational policy specialist at RAND Corp. Kerr's study of a 2,000-student urban high school in Maryland shows just how challenging.

In the mid-1990s, the high school was rife with problems, including a 70 percent attendance rate, a school climate marked by student apathy and unruliness, and high numbers of academic failures. To combat these problems, administrators and teachers redesigned ninth grade as a school-within-a-school with interdisciplinary team teaching, block scheduling, and curriculum and instruction focusing on core academic subjects.

Five years after instituting these and other major reforms, the school's overall school climate has improved, but serious problems still abound. The school continues to be plagued with discipline problems and low achievement. In 2000, less than two-thirds of the school's ninth-graders passed the Maryland Functional Math Test.

Reforms such as those adopted at this high school are a start, but they're not the whole solution, Kerr says. Large-scale, expensive changes won't work unless schools add an essential ingredient -- what Kerr calls the "unique characteristics and needs of ninth-grade students."

A school of their own

A growing initiative that puts ninth-graders into separate schools does seem to stand a good chance of working -- if school officials put ninth-graders' developmental needs first. According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), ninth-grade-only schools, often housed on a separate campus, are catching on, especially in urban school districts. Some 128 separate ninth-grade schools were operating in 2000, NCES says, with more in the planning stages.

Four of those schools, each with about 850 students, are in the Aldine Independent School District in Houston. The 53,000-student district decided to do its ninth-graders a favor by withdrawing them from large high schools with over 2,000 students and placing them in small centers. The centers, which opened in 1998 and 1999, were built at a cost of $10 million each.

Superintendent Nadine Kujawa says the new schools have helped reduce dropout rates, increase attendance, raise test scores, improve behavior, and increase the number of promotions to 10th grade. These improvements have paid off by helping the district win a high accountability rating from the Texas Education Agency, she says.

In the 6,000-student Rush-Henrietta Central School District outside Rochester, N.Y., ninth-graders also attend a separate facility. The separate school gives ninth-graders "an environment that addresses their unique needs," says Superintendent Kenneth Graham. As he puts it, ninth grade should fit ninth-graders -- not the other way around.