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Bridges4Kids LogoAL Ninth Grade Key to Success, but Reasons Are Debated
by Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times, January 18, 2004
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With the rising use of standardized exams to measure school performance, ninth grade is becoming a watershed moment at many schools across the country.

Increasingly, educators say, students at risk of failing pivotal tests commonly given in the 10th and 11th grades are being held back, sometimes more than once. Frequently, such students become so discouraged that they drop out.

The impact of the trend is evident in a significant nationwide bulge in students enrolled in ninth grade and a tripling of the attrition between the 9th and 10th grades over the last 30 years, according to a report by Walter Haney of Boston College.

"The implications are not only dire for these individual students, but dire for society at large," Dr. Haney said in an interview.

The report, "The Education Pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000," compares school enrollment data by grade from the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. It found that four-year high school graduation rates steadily rose in the early 1980's, but declined in the 1990's.

The slide occurred just as President Bill Clinton and Congress ushered in the school accountability measures strengthened in the No Child Left Behind Act, and set a national goal of raising the four-year graduation rate to 90 percent by 2000. Instead, the share of on-time graduations declined by four percentage points, to 74.4 percent in 2000-01 from 78.4 percent in 1991-92, according to Dr. Haney's study.

The report calculates that while 3.4 million students were enrolled in the eighth grade in the 1996-97 school year, 871,000 of them failed to graduate from high school in four years. If the graduation rate of the early 1990's had remained unchanged, 135,000 more of those eighth graders would have left high school with diplomas in hand.

Dr. Haney contends that the overall decline in graduation rates is a result of two trends: increasing course requirements and growing demands that high school students pass specific standardized tests, commonly called exit exams, to receive a diploma.

"The benign explanation is that this whole standards and reform movement was implemented in an ill-conceived manner," Dr. Haney said.

John Robert Warren, a professor of education at the University of Minnesota, said he agreed with the basic findings in Dr. Haney's report but not with Dr. Haney's conclusions. Dr. Warren contended that falling graduation rates could be due to changing demographics.

"The two things we really know contribute to dropouts are poverty and recent Hispanic immigrants," he said. He said the declines also have to do with a dwindling commitment among politicians and the public "to making sure that every kid has access to a decent education."

To Steven Orel, director of the World of Opportunity Adult Education program here, the competing explanations poverty, the pressure of standardized exams and a readiness to write off the most difficult students are all true.

Three years ago, 16-year-olds started showing up at his G.E.D. program, then run by the Birmingham Public Schools. They were carrying documents saying they had just "withdrawn" from Woodlawn, the local high school. The cause? "Lack of interest," according to the forms signed by Woodlawn officials.

"Kids were coming to us within a week or a month of leaving high school," Mr. Orel said. "It defied logic to me: Why were these kids coming to me if they lacked interest?"

Mr. Orel enlisted the support of Virginia Volker, a Birmingham school board member, who learned that some 522 students, or 5.6 percent of the high school student body, had similarly "withdrawn." They were told to leave school after Feb. 15, when the state calculates reimbursement levels based on enrollment, but before April, when they would have taken the Stanford Achievement Tests, and could have dragged down their school's scores, Ms. Volker found.

"A lot of our parents are poor and overworked, and they didn't object," Ms. Volker said.

A spokeswoman for the Birmingham public schools, Michaelle Chapman, said that it was not the prospect of poor test scores that caused the withdrawal of so many students. At least some of the students involved, whose records the district examined, had missed more than 100 days from school, she said, and would not have passed anyway.


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