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First Grade Dropouts

The Montgomery County public schools in Maryland have developed a longitudinal study with data that are finding that the early-warning signs of a student at risk of dropping out may become visible at the very start of their school careers.The Montgomery County public schools, in a suburb of Washington, is building one of the first early-warning systems in the country that can identify red flags for 75 percent of future dropouts as early as the second semester of 1st grade.Montgomery County’s initiative comes in the midst of development of an early warning to identify students at risk of not graduating from high school on time. According to the most recent count  for 2012, 28 states use early-warning systems, with more in development. These systems can be used to target interventions based on profiles of characteristics of students who fail academically and drop out of school, though at this point, relatively few states or districts have reports available to principals and teachers multiple times a year.

As early as 1st grade, factors such as reading below grade level or racking up more than nine absences in a year can exponentially increase the odds that a students will eventually drop out of school, according to Montgomery County’s data. Most modern early-warning systems have evolved out of the work of Robert Balfanz, the co-director of the Everyone Graduates Center and a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Research from the Johns Hopkins center showed that three red flags—chronic absenteeism, severe disciplinary infractions, and reading or mathematics failures—signal a student’s disengagement from school and predict his or her risk of dropping out as early as 6th grade.

The Montgomery County district compared the grades, attendance, and behavior of 723 dropouts from the class of 2011 and 523 dropouts from the class of 2012 with those of their classmates who graduated. The early-warning system reverse-engineers a risk profile based on warning signs at four critical transition points: spring of 1st grade and fall of 3rd, 6th, and 9th grades.

For example, chronic absenteeism is generally defined as missing 10 percent or more days of school, excused or unexcused. In Montgomery County, Mr. West found virtually no pupils in the early-elementary grades missed 20 days of school. But missing as few as nine days of school nearly doubled a student’s risk of dropping out later.

Report card grades proved to be the strongest predictor of dropout risk found in grades 1 and 3. An overall GPA of 1.2 (roughly a D) in the spring of 1st grade more than doubled a student’s risk of dropping out later on, and more specifically, reading or doing math below grade level in 1st grade increased dropout risk by 134 percent.

In later years, lower academic performance was even more predictive, even with higher report card grades. At both the 6th and 9th grades, a student with a GPA below 3.0 and no other risk factors still was more than 3½ times more likely to drop out of school.All told, a combination of the grades, attendance, and behavior indicators in 1st grade predicted about 75 percent of the students who dropped out in the classes of 2011 and 2012. A quarter to one-third of students who had at least one warning sign in 1st grade had more red flags in the 6th and 9th grades.

While Montgomery’s early-warning system is not yet being used to track individual students in real time, the district is changing the way it talks about student risk factors. For example, the data showed that more than 60 percent of students who dropped out were not from poor families. English-language learners were overrepresented among dropouts in the class of 2011—16 percent compared to the 4 percent district average—and special education students accounted for more than one in five dropouts in 2011, higher than their 11 percent share of the class overall. Still, Mr. West argued grade and behavior indicators proved more reliable and less discriminatory than looking at socioeconomics or race.One reason for caution: At early grades, the system can show almost 50 percent more students at risk of dropping out as those who ultimately do. Still, Mr. West noted that it’s not certain whether the false positives come from mistakes that make sense in context—for example, a high-performing student who gets chicken pox and misses two weeks of school—or the effect of interventions to help at-risk students in later grades.

“You will not reduce dropout rates by [identifying] the students; it’s what you do with them,” he said. “Early-warning systems are not an intervention strategy; they are part of an intervention strategy. They are not a magic bullet.”The district is working to analyze changes in the indicators from grade to grade to find the trajectories that might be more accurate predictors than at a single grade. It is also analyzing data from its high school graduates to find indicators associated with later college persistence.

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