The Ninth-Grade Bottleneck

An enrollment bulge in a transition year that demands careful attention and action by Anne Wheelock and Jing Miao

Consider the following:

In Texas, a state audit finds that Houston’s dropout rates are much higher than reported, in part because district officials have failed to count discharged students as dropouts.

In Miami, a high school principal is investigated for charges that low-scoring students were pushed out of school to boost test scores.

In Massachusetts, the state’s dropout report for 2002-03 fails to count hundreds of students from several urban districts in its calculation of official dropout rates.

In New York City, increasing numbers of early school leavers are included in neither graduation nor dropout rates because they are discharged to “other educational programs,” with the number of students discharged now exceeding the number who graduate.

Holding Power

Across the country, official reports of high school students out of school do not always reflect the scope and extent of an urgent but neglected national education problem: The nation’s graduation rate is in steady decline. An increasing percentage of adolescents are not graduating from school in four or even five years. A related cause for concern is the increase of students who are stuck in the 9th-grade bottleneck and fail to progress into 10th grade on time.

On paper, policymakers view graduation rates as important indicators of school quality. In 1994, the United States established a national education goal of achieving a 90 percent high school completion rate by the year 2000. No Child Left Behind legislation requires states to report graduation rates, defined as “the percentage of students who graduate secondary school with a regular diploma in the standard number of years.”

Still, stated goals have not succeeded in improving school holding power. To the contrary, our analysis of grade enrollment data from the last 30 years shows that graduation rates have fallen steadily since 1984, with the decline accelerating in the 1990s. When the graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students who complete their schooling in the “standard number of years” (calculated by dividing the number of students enrolled in grade 9 into the number graduating from high school three and a half years later), the national rate has fallen from 72 percent in 1991 to 67 percent in 2001. Even when the graduation rate is defined by the number of graduates divided by grade 8 enrollment four and a half years earlier, a definition that offsets the effect of enrollment fluctuations in grade 9, the rate has slipped from 78 percent in 1991 to 75 percent in 2001.

Growing Bulge

School enrollment numbers also highlight where what Johns Hopkins University researchers Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters call school “promoting power” is weakest. Grade enrollment numbers for the past 30 years show the transition between grades 8 and 10 is increasingly difficult for many students.

Compared with enrollment numbers in 8th grade, 9th-grade enrollments are larger than ever. If students are progressing on time through the education pipeline, student enrollment in any particular grade should be about the same as enrollment in the previous grade. Such is the case in most of the grades. However, 9th-grade enrollment relative to 8th-grade enrollment belies this expectation. Enrollments are increasingly bunching up in grade 9. As of 2001, 13 percent more students were enrolled in grade 9 than in grade 8 the previous year nationwide, while the bulge can be much larger for some states. For example, in Florida, as many as 32 percent more students were enrolled in grade 9 than in grade 8 the previous year.

The largest dip in enrollment from one year to the next is now between grades 9 and 10. As grade 9 enrollment has increased relative to grade 8, student progress from grade 9 to grade 10 has become more constricted. Nationally, as of 2001, while 10th-grade enrollment was between 11 and 12 percent smaller than 9th-grade enrollment the previous year, the difference was much higher in some states. For example, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas have grade 10 enrollments that are 20 percent smaller than the grade 9 enrollment the previous year. In contrast, prior to the mid-1980s, between 2 and 5 percent of 9th graders failed to progress to 10th grade, and the loss of students from the pipeline was most pronounced after grade 11.

The 9th-grade bulge and 10th-grade dip are most dramatic for African American and Latino students.

National enrollment trends from 1992-93 to 2000-01 show persistent race disparities. While grade 9 enrollment for white students is consistently between six to eight percent higher than enrollment in grade 8, the increase is about four times as much for black students (23-27 percent) and Latino students (24-28 percent). At the same time, while grade 9 to grade 10 attrition rates have been steady at about 6 to 7 percent for white students, attrition is over twice as much for the Latino population (14-19 percent) and nearly triple for the black population (18-21 percent), varying by state.

When we place the rise in grade 9 enrollment alongside the fall in grade 10 enrollment, the 9th-grade bulge becomes apparent. This bulge has grown most dramatically in the past two decades, first in the context of the standards movement that followed the publication of “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, then again as states introduced test-based school accountability programs and student graduation testing in the 1990s. In 2000, 9th-grade enrollment numbered 440,000 more than grade 8 enrollment and 520,000 more than grade 10 enrollment.

Increasing attrition of students between grades 9 and 10 and higher enrollments of students in grade 9 relative to grade 8 reflects the fact that more students nationally are being flunked to repeat grade 9. This pattern bodes ill for future graduation rates as the 9th-grade bulge becomes an ever-narrowing bottleneck. As reported by researchers Lorrie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith in Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention, repeating any grade undermines academic achievement and contributes to dropping out. More recent evidence from Texas and Philadelphia likewise shows that persistence to 12th grade is dramatically lower for students repeating grade 9.

Better Visibility

Reducing the 9th-grade bulge and improving graduation rates requires educational leaders first to make problems visible, then take steps to support on-time progress of the most vulnerable students through the education pipeline. We suggest the following:

* Make the 9th-grade bulge visible and use data for school improvement.
In recent years, school accountability policies have defined school improvement primarily in terms of test score gains. No Child Left Behind has added a new dimension to assessing school performance by requiring schools to report graduation rates to the public. Unfortunately, just as high stakes attached to test score results may contribute to using 9th grade as a holding tank for the weakest students and result in removing some from the test-taking population in the later high school grades, attaching high stakes to graduation data could work against authentic efforts to keep students in school.

We support reporting graduation rates and related data to the public. But we encourage using these data to plan for improved practice in schools with weak promoting and graduating power rather than to determine penalties for lapses or rewards for improvement. We believe improving practice in the 9th grade in particular can significantly boost the number of students who progress into grade 10 and graduate on time. We also believe that schools can graduate additional students who need five years to graduate.

In practice, the choices education leaders make about the denominator used in calculating graduation rates makes a significant difference in the results. Some states and districts now use the test-taking population in grade 10 or even grade 12 enrollment as the base for figuring rates. This practice eliminates students who started with their cohort in grade 9 from the calculation and results in graduation rates that look better than the reality. Others use grade 9 as the denominator, a practice that results in graduation rates that more closely reflect fluctuations in the 9th-grade bulge.

In order to make the 9th-grade bulge visible and assess high school holding power, we recommend reporting district and school graduation rates based on grade 9 enrollment for each subgroup. As a way of describing district holding power over five years, we recommend simultaneously reporting rates based on grade 8 enrollment. Further, we suggest reporting dropout data by subgroup, by grade and by discharge code. For better planning for improvement across the district, we also recommend public reporting of grade failure rates in all grades, as well as rates of attrition from grade 9 to grade 10, also by subgroup.

* Make improved holding power and graduation rates central to the mission of each district and school and to 9th-grade restructuring in particular.
Improving school holding power requires strengthening the bonds between vulnerable students and the adults in their school. With this goal central to the educational mission, school leaders set the stage for a closer match between school practice and the lives of struggling students by asking the following: What are the schooling experiences of our most vulnerable students? Who advocates for these students in our schools? How do we expand the number of adults advocating for these students? What do adults need to do differently to make sure all students graduate? Responses to these questions are shaping what schools do to improve holding power, especially in the 9th grade.

Interviewed or shadowed 9th graders repeatedly report they disengage from school when they feel teachers don’t care about getting to know them as individuals. Although many 9th graders say they aspire to enroll in post-secondary schooling, many also say they feel they don’t belong in school. Such apparently contradictory perspectives suggest school leaders must consider how 9th-grade practice can build on students’ strengths to enhance student commitment to school while also ensuring schools offer learning experiences worth committing to.

Around the country, restructuring 9th grades into small learning communities similar to interdisciplinary teacher teams that characterize many middle schools and downsizing high schools to 400 students or less are emerging as strategies for improving holding power. According to education researchers Jacqueline Ancess and Suzanna Ort Wichterle, more personalized learning in settings with high teacher-student ratios can help make school completion a reality for more students.

In the small schools they have studied, consistent teacher-student relationships and assignments designed to develop students’ habits of mind are key to holding students to graduation. The explicit goal of making students “graduate-able” helps guard against such schools from becoming another guise for the district’s low track. Still, districts should take care that such schools do not triage the easiest-to-teach students into small schools, leaving the neediest students in larger, less personal settings.

Likewise, school leaders should heed the note of caution sounded by Mary Anne Raywid and Gil Schmerler, researchers with considerable experience in alternative schools, who note that ongoing success of such schools requires district leadership to sustain support for such models, apply bureaucratic and union rules flexibly, define accountability standards broadly, and protect new alternatives from pressure to become like all other schools or evolve into a dead-end program.

Whatever the setting, more adults must make graduation central to what they do in their individual roles. Teachers known as advocates for the most vulnerable students can be asked to plan approaches to improve 9th-grade promoting power. School leaders also can encourage counselors to offer more personalized support to students who fall behind in earning credits necessary to graduate in four years.

As Jill Chaifetz, executive director of New York City’s Advocates for Children, told The New York Times, not all students will complete school in four years, but she says, “Instead of calling kids and saying, ‘You're not going to make it so you should leave,’ it would be a completely different conversation if you called them in and said, ‘You won't be able to graduate in four years, but let's talk about a long-term plan that will give you the enrichment and services you need to help you get to graduation.’”

Support Services

* Consider a range of support services to strengthen the transition from eighth to tenth grade.
Many students stuck in 9th grade already are overage for their grade, and when they fall behind, another grade retention is unlikely to help. Extra academic support offered early and often during the school year and before students fail, rather than after, can both improve course passing rates and strengthen student motivation to persist in school. In addition, students with learning difficulties who also struggle with attendance or behavioral problems need support that goes beyond academics to progress through 9th grade.

Districts can strengthen the transition between 8th and 9th grade by offering summer school to rising 9th graders, not as a remedial program but as a program to accelerate students’ progress and help them begin to accumulate credits for graduation prior to 9th grade. In some cases where school feeder patterns are established, 8th-grade teachers may move into the high school to join a 9th-grade team to reduce 9th-grade anonymity.

During the 9th-grade year itself, schools may work to prevent course failure through in-class supports like making audiotapes available to students who can listen as they complete assigned readings. An extra period during the day where 9th graders receive re-teaching or double-time learning in specific subjects or afterschool homework centers staffed by teachers who monitor students and help them with incomplete assignments can improve course-passing rates.

Some schools make direct instruction in study skills part of the 9th-grade curriculum or assign vulnerable 9th graders to 12th-grade buddies trained to tutor and counsel students in time management. Others work with community-based organizations to train struggling 9th graders to tutor younger students, thereby strengthening students’ commitment to completing high school. Still others train volunteer adults from the community or recruit college students from teacher preparation programs to work as writing coaches in the school-based writing lab.

While some students may fail 9th grade for academic reasons, others fail for lack of support in meeting attendance or disciplinary standards. To address these problems, school leaders can designate a parent involvement coordinator as the contact person to work with parents in each school, conduct orientation meetings about attendance and discipline for families before school starts, meet with new families arriving during the school year, and make home or workplace visits to families of chronically absent students. School leaders also can collaborate with community-based organizations to expand the resources available to monitor student attendance and behavior through personalized contracts with students, rewarding students for improvement.

* Revise district and school policies and practices that may undermine school engagement.
No Child Left Behind legislation has generated considerable worry that pressure on districts and schools to look good on statistical measures contributes to fiddling with enrollments. However, many state- and district-based accountability policies that penalize or reward high schools for gains on 10th-grade tests already may be incentive enough to retain larger numbers of students in 9th grade to prop up test scores or to overuse certain discharge codes to enhance graduation rates. As we note, educators must begin to address problems by reporting data in transparent ways.

We suggest that education leaders consider alternatives to grade retention in every grade across each district to reduce the number of students who arrive in 9th grade already overage for their grade. Like retention in 9th grade, retention in kindergarten, elementary or middle school undermines both achievement and motivation and contributes to truancy and discipline problems.

Compared with retention, providing services when students need them in a school climate organized around the principle that “everyone has to get it” will produce more positive results. At the same time, accountability reporting of test scores, along with retention, attendance and graduation rates, should not trigger high-stakes rewards or penalties. Instead, a press for school improvement should come from school quality reviews that focus on assessing the quality of student work in the context of trends in other indicators.

School leaders also should reconsider attendance and discipline policies that may undermine student progress. Policies that trigger mandatory grade failure after a stated number of absences may discourage students who exceed the allowed number from persisting in school for the remainder of the quarter, semester or year, further eroding their commitment to school.

Instead, consider buy-back policies that allow students to erase absences from their records in exchange for a certain number of days of perfect attendance. Suspending students for tardiness, truancy or minor rules infraction represents a lost opportunity to teach students positive behavior and strengthen their commitment to school. Consider negotiating individual attendance contracts with students, using conflict resolution to mediate disputes and establishing restitution programs.

* Consider comprehensive high school reform based on talent development principles, beginning in the 9th grade.
Although the growing 9th-grade bulge is a national problem, data show that the problem is especially acute in urban districts where sometimes only about half the students starting 9th grade graduate four years later. In these districts, school leaders should consider planning for and implementing schoolwide approaches designed to strengthen 9th grade for all students, especially the most vulnerable.

One such approach is the Talent Development High School model, which the independent research group MDRC has found can improve rates of 9th graders completing core curriculum and attendance requirements in low-graduation high schools.

Talent Development High Schools roll many reforms into a comprehensive strategy that is improving 9th-grade course completion, attendance and promotion rates in schools where student engagement is tenuous and where poor prior preparation challenges teachers. This strategy involves setting up small learning communities organized around interdisciplinary teacher teams that share the same students and have common daily planning time. Other features include curriculum leading to advanced English and mathematics course work, academic extra-help sessions, parent and community involvement in activities that foster students’ career and college development, and ongoing staff professional development. A team of facilitators and coaches helps teachers implement changes at the school level.

Central Mission

Nationwide, declining graduation rates result in high costs for individual students, families and entire communities. Research and examples of effective practice together point to policy-wise and service-rich approaches that can reverse this trend. As schools with low graduation rates are deemed “schools in need of improvement” or “failing schools,” state, district and school leaders alike must avoid the temptation to manipulate the numbers for short-term gains.

School leaders instead can take steps in a long-term plan to make school completion central to the mission of schools and reform conditions that contribute to student attrition from school before graduation.

Anne Wheelock and Jing Miao are researchers with the Progress Through the Education Pipeline Project at the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Education Policy, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467. E-mail: and


Additional Resources

The authors suggest these resources for those interested in more on the subject of 9 th-graders’ performance:

“ Making School Completion Intregral to School Purpose and Design” by Jacqueline Ancess and Suzanna Ort Wichterle. Paper presented at the Conference on Dropouts in America: How Severe Is the Problem? What Do We Know About Intervention and Prevention? Retrievable from

“Reducing the Risk: Connections That Make a Difference in the Lives of Youth” by Robert Blum and Peggy Mann Rinehart. Retrievable from

"The Education Pipeline in the United States, 1970-2000," by Walt Haney, George Madaus, Lisa Abrams, Anne Wheelock, Jing Miao and Ileana Gruia. Retrievable from

“The Talent Development High School Model: Context, Components, and Initial Impacts on Ninth-Grade Students’ Engagement and Performance” by James Kemple and Corinne Herlihy. Retrievable from

“Not So Easy Going: The Policy Environments of Small Urban Schools and Schools Within Schools” by Mary Anne Raywid and Gil Schmerler. Available from AEL, Box 1348, Charleston, WV 25325; 800-624-9120;

Flunking Grades: Research and Policies on Retention by Lorrie Shepard and Mary Lee Smith, Falmer Press, London