“Dropout factories” is the term for high schools where less than 60 percent of freshmen complete their senior year. With the District’s graduation rate at 43 percent, according to an Education Week study, it means that the dropout industry in D.C. is robust.

But some of the data presented at Wednesday’s D.C. Council roundtable makes the case that the real dropout factories are the city’s middle grades: 6, 7 and 8. More than half of D.C. students who leave school do so in ninth grade, which means that their experience in middle school most likely laid the groundwork for their early exit.

“If we want to improve graduation rates, we need to catch students before they are teetering on the ninth-grade cliff,” said HyeSook Chung, executive director of D.C. Action for Children, a non-profit advocacy group that pulled together research for the hearing.

The seven-hour hearing was the first of two planned by D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown to push middle school overhaul to the top of the city’s school reform agenda. More than 30 witnesses — including parents, principals and researchers — testified.

“You shouldn’t have to win a lottery ticket to make sure that your child gets a quality education in middle school,” said Brown.

Brown and other council members are concerned that recent enrollment gains made by DCPS at the elementary level are at risk unless the city can raise the quality of offerings at its 13 traditional middle schools and 20 “campuses” that include grades six through eight.

“I know we’re on a collision course, especially in Ward 6,” said D.C Council member Tommy Wells. While elementary schools in the ward are flush with young families that have helped lead a revitalization, there is widespread concern about the condition of the community’s three middle schools: Stuart-Hobson, Jefferson and Eliot-Hine.

Standardized test scores in middle schools have grown over the last five years, but are still mediocre at best. Eighth-grade reading proficiency across the District (public and public charter) was 49.6 percent on the 2011 DC CAS, according to the D.C. Action for Children report. Math proficiency was 58.4 percent.

Those aggregate numbers obscure some dismal situations. At Johnson in Ward 8, for example, 17.5 percent of all students read at proficiency or better in 2011; at Jefferson in Ward 6, reading proficiency stands at 30.2.

Public charter schools have a stronger middle school story to tell. Howard University Middle School of Math and Science, E.L. Haynes, KIPP, Paul and Washington Latin are among the schools that posted 70 percent proficiency or better in at least one subject.

Chung, citing research by Johns Hopkins University, said a series of predictive markers, visible as early as six th grade, can identify dropout candidates: a final grade of “F” in math or English, attendance below 80 percent for the year or a final “unsatisfactory” behavior mark in at least one class.

Sixth graders with at least one of the four markers had at least a 75 percent chance of dropping out,” Chung said. More than one drove the likelihood even higher. She proposed that the District create an “early warning system.” Virginia and Texas are among the states that use them.

More to come on Thursday.