PHILADELPHIA — A half-dozen sixth-grade teachers sat in a circle inside an empty classroom, poring over sheets of data showing their students’ attendance, grades and discipline. They were looking for children who were sliding, whose records indicated they were in danger of falling off the track to high school graduation.
Marissa Johnson urged them to highlight those students’ names in yellow. “Our goal is to identify students who need to finish strong,” said Johnson, an employee of Diplomas Now, a Johns Hopkins University program that helps teachers here, at Grover Washington Jr. Middle School, identify students in need of extra support.
The research is clear: If you want to know whether a child is on a path toward graduating or dropping out, standardized test scores are not very useful. Far more telling is whether that child comes to school regularly, behaves in class and earns passing grades.
A growing number of states and school districts have begun closely examining attendance, grades and discipline records for even the youngest students in elementary school, searching for warning flags. Such “early warning systems” give schools a chance to intervene long before students lose their way.
Whether such efforts can change a child’s trajectory is still an open question, but many educators think early warning systems hold great promise. Emerging evidence suggests that they can be an important force in reshaping how schools identify and serve at-risk students.
Diplomas Now, which is being used in dozens of schools across the country, is helping middle-school students succeed, according to an independent evaluation released Tuesday.
Some districts that have embraced early warning systems have had positive change, including at the Chicago Public Schools, the nation’s third-largest system. Proponents say that when schools focus on reducing absenteeism and course failure, they are able to uncover and address the root problems holding students back — which can do more to help them than cramming for an annual test.
“The shift from focusing on test scores to focusing on attendance and grades — it’s been a complete transformation in terms of how schools are working with students, and it’s much more effective,” said Elaine Allensworth of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.
Allensworth’s research on the strong correlation between the number of courses ninth-graders pass and the high school graduation rate persuaded Chicago school officials to begin closely tracking the passing rate of freshmen, going to new lengths to make sure that students were coming to school regularly and engaging in class.
And Chicago’s graduation rate has risen dramatically — 22 percentage points — during the past decade and a half. The fastest growth came during the past six years, according to a study released this month — improvement that Allensworth said can’t be explained by demographic change and that appears to have been driven by ninth-graders’ improving rate of passing courses.
Thirty-one states produce some kind of early warning report about their students, according to the Washington-based Data Quality Campaign. And experts predict that the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, will help stoke further interest with specific requirements for intervention in high schools with low graduation rates.
But early warning systems do not make a difference unless they prompt schools to take meaningful action to help students who are struggling, experts say.
“It’s not a silver-bullet answer,” said Susan Bowles Therriault of the American Institutes for Research, who has worked with many states to build early warning systems. “It actually ends up being a lot more work in the long run.”
And some advocates worry that early warning systems could be used inappropriately, such as if schools were to use the information to identify, and then push out, students who could reflect badly on test scores and graduation rates.
“There is huge danger of stereotyping as well, biasing teachers in a way that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Leonie Haimson, an activist in New York and co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy.
In Chicago, high schools are judged in part by the number of freshmen who earn enough credits to become sophomores, and it’s up to principals to decide how to help more ninth-graders succeed. Although the district has been squeezed by a budget crisis, schools have made strides, in most cases without additional resources.
At the city’s Lindblom Math and Science Academy, that meant a renewed focus on attendance: A dean teams up with the social worker and school clerk to visit the homes of students who are not coming to school regularly and to solve transportation problems or help with other assistance.
The school’s schedule was redesigned to give ninth-grade teachers time to meet to discuss the students they have in common; they now work together on strategies to help students who are struggling.
But perhaps the biggest shift was reorienting the school to ensure that students are successful with the day-in, day-out class work instead of focusing so intently on their standardized test scores, said Alan Mather, who was Lindblom’s principal for a decade before he moved to a central office position in 2015.
“Schools were having pep rallies around tests, and that sends the wrong message to kids,” Mather said. “The right message really was you need to do well.”
The five-year graduation rate at Lindblom — a selective-admissions school where two-thirds of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — has risen steadily in recent years, from 90 percent in 2012 to 100 percent in 2015.
Other early warning systems rely on bringing additional resources into the schools. One of the most prominent is Diplomas Now, which is used by dozens of schools, including Grover Washington Jr. in Philadelphia.
“Our model brings people into schools, not just ideas and strategies,” Hopkins researcher Robert Balfanz said. “There are too many needy kids and not enough adults. Until you change that equation, it doesn’t matter if you give them new strategies.”
Balfanz and his colleagues were among the first to show the predictive power of the “ABCs” — attendance, behavior and course performance — in a study of Philadelphia middle schools a decade ago. Sixth-graders who fell short on any of the ABCs had a 75 percent chance of dropping out of school. That meant that if a student failed math or English for the year, received an unsatisfactory mark for behavior on a report card or had an attendance rate below 80 percent, they probably would not be walking at graduation six years later.
“That seemed shocking,” Balfanz said, noting that the indicators of later trouble were so clear that they amounted to middle schoolers “waving their hands,” searching for help.
Hopkins employees work with teachers, showing them how to use data to flag students who are going off track. But Diplomas Now includes other partners, too: City Year, an AmeriCorps program, provides volunteers who work full time to help teachers in classrooms, run after-school activities, and serve as mentors who reach out to struggling students and their families.
For students with the most intensive needs, Communities in Schools, a national dropout-prevention program, provides connections with outside agencies for help with hunger, housing and mental-health care.
In 2010, the Education Department awarded Diplomas Now a $30 million grant to study whether the program could be scaled up effectively.
Sixty-two high-poverty schools in 11 districts are involved in the randomized control trial, which is expected to last seven years. Not until the final results are published in 2019 will it be clear whether the program actually succeeds in improving students’ chances of graduating.
But an independent evaluation conducted by the nonprofit research firm MDRC, released Tuesday, suggests that the program has a modest but positive effect on increasing the number of students who are considered on track for graduation — those whose attendance rates exceed 85 percent, who are suspended fewer than three days, and who are passing both English and math.
At Philadelphia’s Grover Washington, teachers say they are grateful for the school’s 18 City Year volunteers, who can teach small-group lessons, help students who are upset calm down and build caring relationships with kids who otherwise may feel disconnected from school.
Students are equally enthusiastic: Eighth-grader Jermaine Phillips, 14, said his City Year mentor helped him raise his reading grade from a D to B. He dreams of one day attending the University of Florida, he said, because “my City Year, she went there.”
But Grover Washington also is an example of how early warning systems can run into trouble in practice.
Students at the school who were considered on track, according to their attendance, grades and behavior records, declined from a high of 77 percent in 2013 to 55 percent in 2015. It rose to 66 percent by spring of 2016.
Those fitful results have come as the school has struggled to deal with budget cuts and neighborhood violence that has spilled into the building — issues that plague many urban schools and for which there are no simple solutions.
The library has been shuttered for years because there is no money for a librarian. Teachers lost their common planning period last year, so they did not have time to share data on students, identify those at risk and develop strategies to help. And there is just one counselor now to serve Grover Washington’s 560 students; six years ago, there were four.
Shannon Blair, a veteran teacher who has worked at Grover Washington for half of her 17-year career, said she has seen students undergo remarkable transformations inside classrooms that serve as a stable oasis for children who face instability at home.
But Blair said she also has seen children whose challenges can’t be overcome by educators alone — children who, for example, still come to school sporadically even after many meetings with their parents and introductions to outside agencies that can offer support.
“You can’t save them all,” she said.