Why This Research
With research identifying 9th grade success as pivotal for high school completion, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) is now focusing on grade 9 as it works to support its goal of 100% of students graduating ready for college or career. At the Office of Research and Evaluation (ORE), we have worked closely with our external research partners over the past six months to identify a high quality indicator of 9th grade success that will help us discern how our students are doing and where supports are needed.
We worked with our research partners at the UChicago Consortium on School Research to establish a rigorous, evidence-based, on-track standard for our district and with our local partners at the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium (PERC) to examine how well we are meeting that standard, and how we might do better. This post describes both the work and the collaborative relationships that allow us to develop the evidence that we need to drive improvement in our schools.
What The Research Examines
The research office of a large urban school district enjoys a unique, Janus-like position in the world of educational research. Sometimes, we face outward, away from the district itself, to the larger community of researchers. When we set out to define 9th grade success, we knew that there was a wealth of experience and a community of experts in Chicago. We worked closely with the team at the UChicago Consortium and the To&Through Project to learn about their on-track indicator and how we might apply it to the Philadelphia context.
Facing inward, and knowing our unique context, we considered which bits of knowledge and experience from Chicago were importable. As necessary, we complemented these with extensive analyses of recent cohorts of SDP students, identifying exactly which outcomes predict that our 9th graders will become our graduates.
What The Research Finds
We learned that Chicago's Freshman OnTrack metric was a good starting point for us, but that differences in the way Philadelphia awards credits to students meant that some adjustments were needed to develop a new definition of 9th Grade On Track that worked in our context. The on-track definition we developed requires a first-time 9th grader to earn one credit in each of the four core areas (math, English, social studies, and science), plus an additional credit from any content area in order to be considered on track. This formulation robustly predicts 4-year graduation rates across multiple cohorts, multiple school contexts, and multiple student sub-groups. Students in our analyses that met this standard were about twice as likely to graduate compared with those that did not.
Implications for Practice
All by itself, this new on-track definition gives practitioners a North Star for 9th grade. Teachers and school leaders can guide decisions by asking whether they will result in more on-track students.
The larger value of the new definition is that it gives us a way to answer many important questions of practice: Working closely with our PERC colleagues, we are pursuing a series of analyses that will provide our schools with actionable information on identifying and supporting off-track students ealy on. The power of this collaboration comes from ORE's deep knowledge of SDP priorities combined with PERC's willingness to let those priorities guide their research agenda, and their capacity to shepherd the program forward.
For example, a question like "which of our students are more likely to succeed in 9th grade," could not have been answered rigorously until clearly operationalized what it means to "succeed in 9th grade." Now, with the new on-track definition in place, this exact question has already been addressed by a report that PERC has completed and which will be described in Thursday's blog post. As this information is combined with the other planned reports, the district will benefit from a wealth of information that will be relevant, actionable, and timely.