Achievement Gap

Ninth-Grade GPAs Predict Kids’ Futures and Chicago Is Raising Them

Today, the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research has issued a new report that reveals all the ways ninth-grade GPA can predict students’ futures. Key takeaways for parents and students are:
  • Don’t let your GPA slide below a C if you want to walk across the stage at the end of senior year.
  • Keep your GPA at a solid B or higher if you want to go to college and succeed.
Here’s why. A ninth-grade GPA can predict a student’s grades two years later, when they count for college admissions. It predicts graduation rates. Most importantly, it predicts not just college entry but college persistence. GPAs of 3.0 or higher (As and Bs) significantly increase students’ chances of making it through freshman year of college—keeping them on track toward a bachelor’s degree. Over the last decade, Chicago Public Schools has invested lots of time, effort and accountability pressure into creating and using the Freshman OnTrack indicator. In 2007, the Consortium released a key report designed to help high school staff understand the importance of keeping freshmen on-track and implementing ways to make sure high school freshmen are coming to school regularly, staying out of trouble and passing their classes, particularly in core academic subjects. In 2008, the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success began offering schools training and support to improve their Freshman OnTrack indicator results. To be on track by the end of ninth grade, a student must have earned at least five credits and failed no more than one semester of one academic subject. In 2009, CPS began issuing school-by-school reports looking at student-level on-track data, so schools could develop targeted interventions for their own freshmen.

Higher GPAs Mean More Students Graduate

This effort has paid off in skyrocketing graduation rates, driven by rising graduation rates for Black and Latino males. In June 2017, Chicago’s five-year graduation rate hit an all-time high of 77.5 percent, up by 4 percentage points from the previous year. Last year’s freshman on-track rate hit an all-time high of 88.7 percent. This suggests strong gains in graduation rates are likely to continue. The data in this report also show that this push to focus high school staff attention on ninth-graders has had beneficial effects on GPA. In 2006, 30 percent of ninth-graders in Chicago’s traditional public high schools had GPAs at 3.0 or higher. By 2013, that share had reached 50 percent. Though the report does not directly address whether grade inflation was responsible for the increase, parallel improvements in attendance and test scores led the researchers to say, “We feel confident that at least part of the improvement in GPA can be attributed to improved achievement and academic success, and not solely to grade inflation.” Digging deeper here, the report controlled for ninth-graders incoming test scores and background characteristics, suggesting that students with GPAs of 3.0 or more had actually learned new material in ninth grade that boosted their scores on the PLAN in the fall of 10th grade. On the flip side, students with low GPAs scored lower on the test than expected based on their earlier test scores and other characteristics. All this suggests the common-sense truth that working hard at academic courses won’t just boost your GPA—it will increase your knowledge, too. But this finding may also help reduce concerns that the push on freshman grades could be spurring grade inflation or gaming the system by passing along students who haven’t earned a passing grade.

Next Steps: Close the GPA Gaps and Set 3.0 as College-Going Target

The report suggests two important next steps for Chicago’s public high schools.  First, focus attention on reducing GPA gaps by gender and race. While GPAs overall have improved greatly over the last decade, across time girls have consistently earned much higher GPAs than boys. Students from wealthier neighborhoods earn higher GPAs than students in poorer neighborhoods. Asian and White students earn higher GPAs than Latino and Black students. Creating deliberate strategies to reduce these gaps could ultimately pay off in higher college completion rates across all demographics. Finally, there is still much work to do to make the connection between ninth-grade GPA and college success more evident to ninth-graders themselves. As a former high school English teacher in Chicago, I know that 14-year-olds aren’t very focused on long-term goals. Plus, old myths that encourage students to skate by—like "freshman grades don’t count until second semester"—die hard. The University of Chicago’s To and Through Project is one of a number of efforts working to help high school staff and students focus on what it takes to build a foundation for college success, and is working with Chicago’s colleges and universities to build more seamless pathways from high school all the way through college graduation. It will take concerted efforts from district leaders, thought partners and high school staff and students to keep moving GPAs in the right direction. But this report shows the progress that has already been made and why it matters for students’ educational and life outcomes.
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Director at Future Ed. She was formerly Editorial Partner at Ed Post and is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an ...

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