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Friday, September 29, 2023
Sept. 29, 2023

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Ninth-grade failure rates reveal much to state, local educators

Even failing one core class can derail timely graduation

By , Columbian Education Reporter

The stress of entering high school is something nearly all students face. The added work load, independence and social pressures of high school, as anyone who has experienced it knows, can be overwhelming.

But for some, that stress can have sweeping consequences on the rest of their high school career, and even their ability to graduate. In Washington and in Clark County, roughly one in five students fail at least one class in their first year of high school.

Research from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago in 2007 suggested students who fail even one core class their freshman year — English, math, science or social studies — are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time. More recently, in 2017, that same group concluded that students who finish freshman year with an F grade point average have only an 18 percent chance to graduate from high school on time; those with a D grade point average have about a 60 percent chance of graduating on time. Nearly all of their peers earning C through A grade point averages, on the other hand, will graduate in four years.

Dixie Grunenfelder, director of K-12 system supports for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said students can be surprised by attendance requirements, the rigor, the sheer amount of homework and studying, and the long-term planning that high school brings.

“For students, it’s where the rubber hits the road,” Grunenfelder said.

According to the most recent data from OSPI, nearly a quarter of freshmen in Washington fail at least one English, math or science class.

Clark County’s largest districts — Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground — trace the state averages. Evergreen Public Schools had the lowest freshman failure rate with 21.3 percent in 2016, while Vancouver had the highest rate at 25.5 percent of students.

Those failure rates, as with so many indicators of student performance, tend to disproportionately affect students of color and students in poverty. At the state level, for example, 34.8 percent of low-income freshmen failed a class compared with their non-low-income peers, 12.3 percent of whom failed a class.

“It’s the underlying risk factors,” Grunenfelder said. “Lack of engagement, lack of resources, high mobility — you’ve got attendance issues. All those things that impact graduation.”

There’s some good news, however. Freshman failure rates are on the decline statewide, while local districts are either declining or staying flat. Area districts credit increasing efforts to provide students with academic as well as emotional support as they make the transition into high school.

“We try to hire staff members who understand that at the freshman year, kids screw up,” said Travis Drake, Prairie High School principal. “And it’s our job to support them through that.”

Engagement strategy

An English teacher, a physics teacher and an elective teacher walk into a classroom.

It sounds like the setup of a joke, but it’s part of the way Evergreen High School is working to keep freshmen engaged their first year of school.

The freshman academy is one of several programs launched in recent years by area school districts to offer incoming freshmen who may have struggled in middle school extra academic and social support through their first year of high school.

At Evergreen, students in the freshman academy are placed into two-period blocks, but they can earn three credits — a science credit, an English credit and an elective credit teaching students how to set themselves up for college.

The hope, according to Bill Oman, executive director of secondary education for the district, is that students will develop relationships with their teachers and feel they have someone who will support them when they’re struggling, while keeping students on track academically.

“It’s different types of interventions to be proactive,” he said.

School districts elsewhere have started programs to aid freshmen.

Battle Ground Public Schools, for example, launched transition classes for freshman at its comprehensive high schools. At Battle Ground and Prairie high schools, students who struggled in eighth grade can enroll in programs that group them together with other students to stay on top of core classes.

Drake said the program helps students map out what tests students have upcoming, and pairs up students who may have the same classroom teachers to build study groups.

“Basically he just supports them in maintaining,” he said.

The state recommends school districts take a multi-pronged approach like these classes to helping new freshmen succeed, based not only on students’ academic progress, but also whether they feel safe and welcome at school.

“That transitional support, building that relationship is critical,” Grunenfelder said.

Columbian Education Reporter