Tuesday, December 13, 2005
The Washington Post sought an analysis of the ninth-grade hurdle to student progress from Walter Haney, professor at the Lynch School of Education and director of the Ford Foundation-funded Education Pipeline project in the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Public Policy at Boston College:
Thirty years ago, only about 4 percent of students had to repeat ninth grade. Now, it is about 12 percent. In such states as Florida, South Carolina and New York, the ninth-grade hurdle, or bulge, is even worse, with more than 20 percent more students enrolled in ninth grade than were in eighth grade the previous year. . . .
Historically the ninth-grade bulge has been associated with three waves of education reform. First, the so-called minimum-competency testing movement in the late 1970s and then the push for more academic requirements in the late 1980s. . . . A greater increase occurred in the 1990s with the rise of the so-called "standards-based reform" and "high stakes-testing" movements. The grade 9 hurdle is also associated with a structural change in how students typically reach high school. The movement from junior high schools to middle schools shifted a grade 7 bulge to grade 9, which is now the critical choke point in the education pipeline.
The consequences have been severe. A majority of students (as high as 80 percent) who are ordered to repeat grade 9 will not stay in school through graduation. This has led to a falling graduation rate in the last decade or so. According to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the graduation rate nationally for the classes of 2002 and 2003 was less than 75 percent, and even lower in such states as South Carolina, Georgia, New York and Mississippi, where it hovered at about 60 percent. . . .
What can be done? Making high schools smaller and less impersonal and connecting schoolwork with students' lives outside of school is one approach. Probably more important would be changes in policies -- specifically providing schools with tangible incentives for keeping children in school and abandoning high-stakes testing used to make important decisions about students and schools based on test results in isolation. After all, test results can never cover all the broad goals of public education -- academic, social and vocational.
Rates of keeping kids in school represent a more powerful measure for the simple reason that they reflect a host of factors affecting student progress, including performance in courses, attendance and citizenship, together with scores on standardized tests.