Does freshman year matter?

High School Success, Teachers & Principals | 04/18/2019

Katie Gustainis
Marketing & Communications Director, Stand for Children Washington

The short answer? Yes.

The long answer filled 45 slides of a presentation at the “Freshman Success” training we hosted for educators earlier this year as part of our partnership with Evergreen Public Schools. Workshop leader Habib Bangura included graphs of GPA and graduation rates, tables of student survey results, and a discussion about the brain development of 14-year-olds to drive the point home.

The point is that freshman year of high school is a challenge for every student. Washington state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction highlighted the difficulties ninth-grade students face in their 2018 Ninth Grade On-Track System Improvement Guide for schools:

“The first year of high school brings a lot of changes. Freshmen find themselves in an unfamiliar and often much larger school, with new teachers and peers and challenging academic expectations and social pressures. Many students fall behind, even those who did well in middle school. Students are also going through a major phase of physiological, neurological, and social development that can make it difficult for them to prioritize academic performance.”

Habib presented research to confirm a fact that surprised the room: the majority of students experience a decline in grades and an increase in unexcused absences during the first year of high school. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research has been studying the impact of the freshman year for decades. The research is clear - freshman year is where we’re losing students. That also means that we know where to start to ensure that more students succeed.

The Chicago data on what works shows stunning results: freshmen who do pass all their classes are four times more likely to graduate from high school than students who do not. A student passing every class is deemed “on-track” to graduation at the end of the ninth grade. The research found that being “on-track” at the end of freshman year isn’t just a good idea, it is a stronger predictor of high school graduation than a student’s race, family income, or test scores.

Moreover, in Chicago Public Schools, when educators started closely tracking student’s “On-Track” status during the freshman year, students quickly saw incredible gains. Freshman On-Track rates rose from 48 percent to 81 percent over 16 years, and graduation rates followed with a dramatic increase of 22 percentage points.

During a press conference about the rising graduation rate in 2014, Chicago’s mayor lauded the strategy’s results:

“This huge success shows that we’re capable of on-the-ground change, and getting kids on track in 9th grade is getting them on track to high school and college graduation. This is part of our turnaround.”

In Washington state, 1 in 5 kids will not graduate from high school this year. As of 2018, 26% of freshmen statewide were considered “off-track” (OSPI). As a community, our state has already committed to measuring Freshman On-Track rates as part of our state ESSA plan and the Washington Student Improvement Framework. But a statewide metric isn’t the same as focusing on freshmen and building relationships in school buildings. 

That’s why Habib and I were in Vancouver. At Stand for Children, we are unwavering in our commitment to develop and uphold policies are proven by data to support student success. In Washington, we’ve already partnered with school districts across the state to bring them similar, no-cost Freshman Success training and coaching. It’s also why we’re fierce advocates for funding Freshman On-Track work at the state level. We believe that every freshman deserves the support that will get them to graduation, and they deserve it sooner than later.

Stay tuned – in parts II and III of this blog series, I’m going to cover who is involved in Freshman Success in school buildings and how we make it happen. Even though we only spent one day in Vancouver, we covered a lot. I look forward to sharing more with you.

This blog is part of a series about Freshman On-Track strategies in Washington. You can read the introduction here or Part II here.

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