Students could show signs of becoming high school dropouts as early as first grade, according to a Montgomery County schools study that officials hope will provide a road map for shrinking dropout rates and improving academic achievement.

The study — including data about students from the high school classes of 2011 and 2012 — showed that students were five times as likely to drop out of high school if they were suspended once in first grade. The first-
graders were twice as likely to drop out of high school if they had a grade-point average below 1.2 by the third report card of the year or were absent from school nine or more times. They were also twice as likely to drop out if they performed below grade level in reading or math.

Schools officials now plan to closely monitor attendance, behavior and course work in first grade to keep students on track for academic success, said Kimberly Statham, deputy superintendent of teaching, learning and programs in Montgomery. Teachers and school administrators will be expected to develop personalized learning plans for students showing warning signs so the school system can focus on them early on.

“They’re still malleable,” Statham said of first-graders. “We want to get them at the stage where we can intervene and change the course of what might happen in their educational careers to keep them from sinking into a cycle of failure.”

Educators typically focus on dropout indicators they see in middle school and high school students. There also has been an increasing focus on third-grade literacy, with those who can’t read by the end of third grade considered as being off the track to graduation.

But the warning signals for first-graders is part of a burgeoning trend among school systems to monitor and catch academic and social problems earlier to better increase a student’s chances of graduating.

The early warning system in Montgomery will begin this month, when students return to classes. The program will start in a network of 10 “intervention schools” that have asked the central office for additional help with improving student academic performance and closing the achievement gap. The names of the intervention schools are expected to be released this month.

Statham said the focus on early learning is meant to push teachers and school administrators to dive into the causes of why students are absent, misbehaving or performing poorly in class. Educators expect to create “personalized learning plans” based on a child’s individual needs as a way to monitor student progress. Some of that work could also include efforts outside of the classroom if a child is exhibiting problems related to poverty or other difficult circumstances at home.

There has been growing demand for school systems to develop warning indicators for students in elementary school, said Mindee O’Cummings, a principal researcher leading early warning and dropout prevention work at the American Institutes for Research.

But O’Cummings warns that the information predicting dropouts among first-graders should be used carefully. Labeling students without talking about what to do to help them could push some adults to ignore certain children considered lost causes.

“The problem with overidentification is [that] without careful communication, it can have negative consequences,” O’Cummings said. “What we don’t want to do is create a reduced expectation with this information that we start to give up on certain students.”

Montgomery Superintendent Joshua P. Starr — who a year ago asked district researchers to find patterns among students who didn’t graduate from high school — agrees. Just because a student shows a warning sign, it doesn’t automatically mean the student is doomed to fail, he said.

“I don’t want to suggest that we’d be labeling kids or tracking kids or saying they’re destined for failure,” Starr said. “It is an opportunity to understand the pattern so we can reverse the potential for [a student] to drop out. That is the power of predictive analytics.”

Starr wants teachers and principals to use the information to dig into student lives and understand the underlying causes that detract from potential success.

“The most important message for staff is that you have to know every single individual child, know their circumstances and know their families,” Starr said. “And you have to complement that with analysis of the data.”

The Montgomery study — conducted by Thomas C. West, a former evaluations specialist in Montgomery — specifically identifies potential dropouts as early as their third report card period of first grade. His research focused on the ABC’s — attendance, behavior and course work — the three most common indicators of dropouts among high school and middle school students.

“One thing I wanted to show is that these are the same problems that may be going on throughout their whole careers,” West said. “It’s like a checkup. You should look at these indicators multiple times.”

About 7 percent of Montgomery students drop out, according to Maryland State Department of Education data. West said his work isn’t a perfect science but is a decent predictor of who is more likely to drop out.

Close to 76 percent of the Montgomery students who dropped out of the classes of 2011 and 2012 showed at least one of the warning signs West identified in first grade. But about 46 percent of students who graduated also exhibited one of the dropout warning signs in first grade.

“This data is meant to aid teachers and administrators,” West said. “The point is to have those conversations between the adults, counselors, teachers and parents.”

Montgomery isn’t the only county engaging in such work. West said he helped Baltimore County conduct similar research and hopes to do the same in Frederick County Public Schools, where he started as the coordinator of data analysis and research this summer.

In 2012, Massachusetts launched an early warning system for students in first through 12th grades. The work focuses on academic milestones students should achieve by the end of third grade, middle school, high school and right after graduation. The goals are mostly based on state test scores.Massachusetts plans to have a pilot program this year that would help school districts develop implementation plans using the data, which focus more on achievement than the signs on which Montgomery’s study centers.

“Telling educators that a ­second-grade student is at risk for not reading by the end of grade three is much more relevant and actionable than telling those educators the second-grader is at risk of dropping out of high school,” said JC Considine, director of Board and Media Relations for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.