Four indicators educators can use to identify potential dropouts in 6th grade

After the examStudents who are at high risk for dropping out of school can be identified as early as 6th grade with four simple indicators, according to a study of 13,000 Philadelphia school district students recently published in Educational Psychologist. 

“Many students in urban schools become disengaged at the start of the middle grades, which greatly reduces the odds that they will eventually graduate,” write the researchers. “We use longitudinal analysis–following almost 13,000 students from 1996 until 2004–to demonstrate how four predictive indicators reflecting poor attendance, misbehavior, and course failures in 6th grade can be used to identify 60% of the students who will not graduate from high school.” 

Many reform efforts have focused on making middle-grades schools more developmentally appropriate and more academically excellent, the researchers write, but much less attention has been paid to heading off student disengagement and lack of motivation, which play a big role in the nation’s graduation rate crisis.

Using data that is readily collected by any school, the researchers identified the following four indicators that educators could use as early as middle school to identify students likely to drop out:

  • Attending school 80% or less of the time during 6th grade;
  • failing math in 6th grade;
  • failing English in 6th grade; and
  • receiving an out-of-school suspension in 6th grade.

“We can regard these findings as hopeful because they indicate that, in 6th grade, most students who can be identified at high risk for failing to graduate are only demonstrating difficulty in one academic subject and/or in one behavioral realm rather than having difficulties in many areas as is typical of many struggling high school students,” the authors write.

Behavior a 5th predictor

The criteria for the indicators were that the yield among nongraduates had to be at least 10% and that the predictive power of the indicator had to be at least 75%. For example, receiving a suspension met the criteria because 80% of students who received suspensions did not graduate within one year of on-time graduation and 10% of the total number of nongraduates had suspensions.

Unsatisfactory final behavior marks in any subject in 6th grade, a 5th indicator, did not quite meet the criterion for predictive power (75% failing to graduate), but had a high yield–50% of nongraduates received a poor behavior mark, the researchers note.

“Receiving a final unsatisfactory behavior grade in any subject in the 6th grade significantly reduced the chances that 6th graders would graduate from the school district within 1 year of expected graduation,” the researchers write. “In addition to being a significant warning flag in and of itself, unsatisfactory behavior magnifies the damaging effects of course failure on students’ prospects of graduating.”

Course failure was a better predictor of not graduating than were low test scores, the researchers found. End-of-5th grade test scores in reading and math were poor predictors of dropping out, supporting data from other studies that found that end-of-6th grade test scores were poor predictors of dropping out, according to the researchers.

Being either a special education student or an English language learner reduced students’ chances of graduating, but these indicators fell short of the 75% threshold for predictive power, the authors write.

The authors, Robert Balfanz and Douglas MacIver of the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, and Liza Herzog of the Philadelphia Education Fund, have worked to develop and evaluate the Talent Development Middle Grades (TMG) and Talent Development High School comprehensive reform models.

These models emphasize effective and engaging instruction, substantial extra help and organizational changes that increase the communal nature of schools, the authors write. The programs promote use of small learning communities and teacher teams for creating learning environments where students and teachers come to know and care about one another.

To identify school factors that influence student attendance, behavior, and effort, in an earlier survey, researchers asked 2,334 5th-8thgrade students about their perceptions of their math classes and teachers . They identified five factors that are predictive of student effort or academic achievement in the middle grades:

  • teacher support;
  • academic press (the extent to which students felt they were expected to work hard and do their best);
  • parental involvement;
  • utility (the extent to which students believed that the math they were studying would be useful in life); and,
  • intrinsic interest in their classes.

Interventions for flagged students

In their work with TMG schools, the authors are putting in place interventions for students flagged by the indicators. Although the fields of attendance and behavior interventions are not well developed, the authors write, research has found the following
strategies to be effective:

  • Constant recognition, modeling and promotion of good attendance;
  • consistent responses to the first absence or incident of misbehavior;
  • data collection and analysis that make it possible to identify which students misbehave and miss school;
  • teams of teachers, administrators, counselors and parents that meet to analyze data and create solutions; and
  • targeted efforts to unresponsive students who continue to miss school and misbehave.

Typically a teacher is assigned the responsibility of “shepherding” unresponsive students by building more personal relationships, checking in frequently with students and giving them immediate feedback, the authors write. When students miss school, the shepherding might involve calling the student each day of absence to find out why the student has missed school. The researchers note that shepherding may be needed for 15-20% of students, and 5-10% of students may need more intensive, clinical types of supports.

“Preventing Student Disengagement and Keeping Students on the Graduation Path in Urban Middle-Grades Schools: Early Identification and Effective Interventions,” by Robert Balfanz, Liza Herzog and Douglas MacIver, Educational Psychologist, Volume 42,

Published in ERN November 2007 Volume 20, Number 8

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