Across U.S., graduation rates are rising, with little connection to test scores

Matt Barnum:

Until last year, when he became Chicago Public Schools’ chief equity officer, Maurice Swinney was a high school principal pulling out all the stops to keep ninth-graders from failing their classes.

At Tilden Career Community Academy, Swinney made it a priority to connect incoming students to the school community and to have a single person responsible for coordinating efforts to help ninth-graders. He was driven by “Freshmen On-Track,” a data point that Chicago researchers developed after realizing that how students fared in their first year of high school reliably predicted whether they would ultimately graduate — better than their race, gender, family background, and middle school grades and test scores combined.

A new book, “The Make-or-Break Year: Solving the Dropout Crisis One Ninth Grader at a Time,” chronicles the history of Freshmen On-Track, from its serendipitous origins at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, to its rollout as a citywide measure of success, to its unusually successful adoption by educators eager to help their students but weary of being told what to do. You can read an excerpt here.

Author Emily Krone Phillips first learned about the metric while working at the research consortium, where she was communications director at the time. (She now directs communications at the Spencer Foundation, which supports Chalkbeat.) She spent more than a year reporting from Tilden, a high school in Canaryville; John Hancock High School in Gage Park; and across the district to understand Freshmen On-Track’s influence in Chicago.

“The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic”