Early Identification of Students Most at Risk of Not Graduating on Time

By Art Burke
May 2015

I’m a researcher at Education Northwest. I’ve worked in district offices and parented six children who are now adults, so for both personal and professional reasons, I have a long interest in helping young people succeed in school.

The part of my job that I enjoy the most is producing results that help teachers and administrators deal with challenges they face in school. My recent work has involved ways of helping students stay on track through high school, including authorship of a just released REL Northwest study on the early identification of high school outcomes in four Oregon school districts.

A substantial body of research—backed by the experiences of students, parents, and teachers—reveals important truths about students’ path through high school. For example, the knowledge, skills, habits, and dispositions toward school and learning that students bring with them on their first day of ninth grade have a large impact on their success throughout their high school career. Also, many high school students do not get off to a very good start. They miss days, fall behind, and by the end of their first year, are missing credits in core courses. Many students who do not get off to a good start eventually drop out or take longer than four years to graduate.

Findings such as these have spurred policymakers, educators, and community members to work with researchers on this problem. In our REL Northwest study, we analyzed data from a cohort of ninth graders in four Oregon districts to find indicators that identify students most at risk of dropping out or not graduating from high school on time. These indicators can help inform the creation of early warning systems that tag students who might need additional supports to keep them on the graduation path. Based on our cohort, we find that these indicators in eighth and ninth graders provide valuable early warning signals:

  • Attendance rate below 80 percent
  • Grade point average below 2.0

While the study confirms findings from other research that attendance and grade point average in eight and ninth grade are closely tied with graduating on time, the study also shows that race/ethnicity and achievement on standardized tests are less predictive of graduating on time (after accounting for other factors). According to our results, only the male gender, English learner student status, attendance, and grade point average in eighth and ninth grade are associated with graduation outcomes.

These results can become useful metrics for the districts that participated in the study and encourage other districts to explore whether different thresholds are appropriate for their context. The results also suggest that districts can establish an early warning system based on information collected as part of normal recordkeeping and reporting. By calling attention to weaker graduation outcomes for males and English learner students, the results point to a potential need for districts to explore interventions and strategies to support these students. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, results from the study can help parents, students, and community organizations focus on strategies for improving students’ attendance and course achievement for eighth and ninth graders to help ensure their on-time graduation from high school.