Academic success in urban high schools

Over 40 percent of ninth graders in Chicago’s urban high schools fail one or more major subjects in their first semester. Melissa Roderick, University of Chicago, and Eric Camburn, University of Michigan, examined both individual and school factors related to a student’s risk of academic failure. In addition, they studied students’ ability to recover after failing courses in their first year of high school. They found that the risk of failure was related to the students’ race, ethnicity, gender, age and prior achievement. But they also discovered that schools differed in their ability to help students make a successful transition to high school. Students’ grades and attendance tend to decline when they move from elementary school into junior high and high school. Urban students are particularly vulnerable to academic failure. Urban students’ school perfor-mance, involvement, and perception of the quality of their school environment all decline, and these declines are linked to school dropout rates. High failure rates in urban schools are symptomatic of a range of problems these schools face. Roderick and Camburn attempted to untangle these interwoven problems. They focused on three questions:

  • How do failure rates vary as a function of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and prior achievement, and how much of this across-student variation can be explained by differ-ences in attendance patterns?
  • How much of the across-school variation in student performance can be attributed to differences in the characteristics of students who attend different high schools, and how much is attributable to possible school effects?
  • How formative are students’ experiences in the transition to high school? Once students have experienced academic difficulty, what are the chances that they will be able to improve their performance?

Many factors contribute to poor performance in urban high schools. Urban students may enter with lower academic skills, or urban schools may not provide the necessary support for students to make a successful transition to a larger, more impersonal learning environment. Prior research on school effects suggests that a student’s performance following transition to high school is due to school as well as individual factors. Urban students are at risk because they tend to have lower skills, they can count on fewer resources at home and their urban schools are less likely to provide the academic and environmental experiences that promote engagement and better performance. Even in urban areas, however, these researchers found a wide variation across high schools.

The goal of this study of Chicago’s high schools was to gain a better understanding of why students fail. Roderick and Camburn studied the extent to which academic difficulty was concentrated among groups of students and the extent to which a student’s chances of failure varied by school. They examined how specific aspects of a school’s instructional climate, organizational design, or policies are associated with variation in failure rates and with recovery from academic difficulty.

Individual Factors

The Chicago ninth-grade class of 1992-93 totaled approximately 28,000 students. As in other urban school districts, students were predominantly minority, increasingly immigrant and socioeconomically disadvantaged. The proportion of students living in poverty was above 40 percent. Fifty-six percent of the ninth-grade class were African-American and 28 percent were Hispanic.

Forty-two percent of the class failed at least one major subject in the first semester, 24 percent failed over half and 14 percent failed 75 percent or more of their courses. Researchers examined the variation by prior achievement, gender, ethnicity, age and number of prior schools attended. Before differences across students were controlled, African-American and Hispanic students, males, students who were overage for their grade, and those with higher rates of mobility were at greater than average risk of failing one or more courses in the first semester. Once prior achievement and gender were accounted for, African-American students were no more likely to fail than white students. However, Hispanic students were significantly more likely to fail unless they were identified as bilingual (and therefore eligible for support services).

Importantly, many students who had adequate skills before high school also had academic difficulty during the first semester. Course failure was not limited to students with low academic skills. Males were significantly more likely to fail; roughly half the males and one-third of females failed at least one course the first semester. Poor attendance, low academic skills, high mobility and being overage for grade all were significant factors in failure but did not, by themselves, account for high failure rates.

School Effects

While overall rates of course failure were high, schools across the city varied in their average rates of failure. Roderick and Camburn analyzed how much of this variance was due to differences in student populations and how much was due to differences in school environments. When differences in the racial, ethnic, gender, achievement, and mobility characteristics of the entering class at each school were controlled, there remained significant across-school variance in the likelihood that an average student would fail one or more courses in the first semester. Much of the higher risk of failure associated with being Hispanic appeared to be due to the fact that Hispanic students attended schools with higher than expected rates of failure. Roderick and Camburn also identified schools in which students did better than expected.

These researchers discovered that the overall chances of students’ improvement from failure in the first semester were poor. Only one-third of students who failed during the first semester improved their grades later in the year. Once again, however, schools varied in their second-semester outcomes and in rates of recovery from academic difficulty. Therefore, rates of recovery appear to be influenced by the instructional environment.

Getting off to a good start is key

Ninth-grade students in Chicago failed classes for many reasons, including lack of academic or study skills, poor attendance and motivation, negative school climate and ineffective teaching. This study points out the importance of getting off on the right foot early in high school. Early academic difficulty becomes another obstacle for students at risk to overcome. Male and Hispanic students were particularly at risk. Findings from this study suggest that schools have quite different learning environments that shape students’ academic achievement. Therefore, efforts to improve performance in high school should focus on restructuring and organizational reforms that have been linked to better student outcomes, particularly for lower-performing students.

These researchers conclude that urban schools too often view student performance as simply linked to individual factors external to the school system. They assume that students perform poorly in high school because they enter with poor skills. But while Chicago schools do serve children who have few skills or external resources to cope with the demands of high school, there is a wide variance across schools in failure rates, even after adjusting for student characteristics. And students with good attendance and academic skills also have a significant risk of failure in the first two years. Initiatives to improve schools, reduce dropout rates and pursue higher standards must pay attention to the transition to high school and to intervening early to promote academic recovery. Roderick and Camburn call for more research into the nature of school effects and the academic and developmental needs of urban adolescents.

“Risk and Recovery from Course Failure in the Early Years of High School” American Educational Research Journal Volume 36, Number 2, Summer 1999 pp. 303-343

Published in ERN February 2000 Volume 13 Number 2

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