Harvard University

Introduction to Dissertation on Ninth Grade Transition



A Dissertation

 Submitted to

The Faculty of the Curry School of Education

University of Virginia


In Partial Fulfillment

of the Requirements for the Degree

Doctor of Education

Department of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy



Gregory Gerard Domecq

B.S., M. Ed.

June 2004



Secondary education in the United States has undergone a great deal of change in the last half of the 20th century. In the first wave of change, lower secondary education was transformed with the “middle school” movement. This change was not accepted without debate.  Perhaps James B. Conant (1960) summed it up best in his “Recommendations for Education in the Junior High School Years” when he said, “There is no consensus whatever among experienced educators as to the place of grade nine in the organizational framework of schooling” (cited in NASSP, 1985).

Over the past thirty years, schools serving students in grades 6 through 8 have gradually replaced the 7th through 9th grade junior high schools. Along with this shift came an educational philosophy built around the distinct needs of young adolescents. But because the concept originated as districts were rushing  to relieve elementary overcrowding caused by the post-World War II baby boom, the configuration of grades in a building was dictated as much by convenience and cost as by an educational rationale (Bradley and Manzo, 2000). In 1973, there were 2,300 public middle schools and nearly 8,000 public junior high schools, which typically included ninth grade, according to the National Middle School Association. By the year 2000, the nation had 16,000 middle schools and 2,000 junior highs (Bradley and Manzo, 2000).

Unfortunately, in many school districts, high school educators had not been involved in designing transition programs, even though moving ninth graders to the high school had tremendous implications for school organization and educators at that level. In many districts, high school educators had actively opposed the middle school concept, labeling it too permissive and less academically rigorous than the junior high school (George and Alexander, 1993). Careful planning for the new ninth graders did not happen in most high schools (George and Alexander, 1993).

George & McEwin (1999) came to several conclusions. In virtually every high school that re-organized using the 9-12 model, ninth grade students evidenced the poorest attendance rate. Ninth graders also lead the list in tardies to class, causing disturbances and disruptions, and earning suspensions and expulsions. They often failed to accumulate enough credits to move on to tenth grade, and they were dropping out in large numbers as soon as they became of age. In many districts, relations between middle level and high school educators deteriorated as each blamed the other for the new ninth grade problem.

The blame for the increase in problems with ninth graders very well may not have been the grade but the nature of the child’s age, the move to a new building, and the increased accountability for both behavioral and academic standards (George and Alexander, 1993; Eccles, Midgely, Wigfield, Buchannan, Reuman, Flananagan, and MacIver 1993; Simmons and Blythe, 1987). The move from one level of schooling to another, normative transition, is likely to cause problems at any age. During normative transition, students are less likely to participate in school activities and often become loners in search of a group by which to identify (Harter, 1990; Hertzog and Morgan, 1999).

No matter the difficulties, the move to the “middle-school/high school model” seems as though it is here to stay, at least for the immediate future. Most of the recent research has indicated that the implementation of this model has led to higher academic achievement, more positive personal development, and more harmonious group citizenship (Felner, Jackson, Kasak, Mulhall, Brand, and Flowers, 1996). Nevertheless, as with most change, there is another story to be told. While these outcomes may describe the overall results for students in grades 6 through 9, the picture changes at the ninth grade level when focusing only on ninth graders. (Blyth and Simmons, 1987).

The freshman year in high school has never been easy. A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stated that nearly one-fourth of ninth graders (23.4%) in the Pittsburgh schools did not pass enough courses to be promoted to the tenth grade at the end of the 1997-98 school year. The article further states that nationwide, in a study of 400 high schools and their feeder pattern middle schools, the average retention rate for ninth graders was in the mid-20’s (Chute, 1999).

While there may have been slight improvements in recent years, about a third of middle school students nationwide scored below basic level in National Assessment of Educational Progress tests and only about a quarter score at the proficient level (Fix, 2000). If transition between middle school and high school has not been difficult enough, the onslaught of high stakes testing has added an entire new dimension. In the Commonwealth of Virginia , the Department of Education has instituted the Virginia Standards of Learning end-of-course tests for members of the class of 2004 who began their freshman year in the fall of 2000. According to the Department of Education website, members of the class of 2004 must not only earn twenty-two course credits, but they also must pass six Standards of Learning end-of-course exams. Passing an end-of-course exam allows the student to earn a verified credit. Those students who seek an advanced studies diploma must not only earn twenty-four course credits, but they also must pass nine verified credits (Virginia Department of Education Website, 2003).

 Increased academic demands require educators to develop programs that maximize student success. Since a school’s individual accreditation is based on the individual student’s success, there is a new “buy-in” attitude by teachers and administrators that has affected instruction. Educators are interested in finding ways to engage students who may never have been engaged before (Hertzog and Morgan, 1999). Since the research seems to point to the importance of the freshman year, many school administrators are looking more closely at strategies that would promote the achievement of ninth grade students (Mac Iver and Epstein, 1991).

 Research has suggested that when middle school students participate in a high school transition program with several diverse articulation activities, fewer students were retained in the transition grade (Mac Iver, 1990). Furthermore, middle school principals indicated that they expected fewer of their students to drop out before graduation when the school provided supportive advisory group activities or responsive remediation programs (Mac Iver and Epstein, 1991).

Any transition program, no matter how effective, cannot stand alone as a panacea for academic success in the ninth grade. A student’s natural ability, socioeconomic status, home environment, race, gender, and motivation are all significant areas for attention when attempting to determine reasons for student success (Coleman , Campbell, Hobson, McPartland, Mood, Weinfield, and York, 1966; George, 2002; Hunsader, 2002; Thomas and Bainbridge, 2000).

No matter the program, there are certain issues that seem inherent to the ninth grade student. The fact that most freshman are entering puberty is not inconsequential when considering the more stringent grade policies and social issues confronted both in school and at home (Barone, Aguuirre-Deandries, and Trickett, 1991; Crockett, Peterson, Graber, Schulenberg, and Ebata, 1989; Canady, 2002; Harter, 1990; Hertzog and Morgan, 1999). The school must depend on a “team effort” among students, teachers, and parents to provide the best opportunity for the success of students (Lord, Eccles, and McCarthy, 1994; Mac Iver, 1990; Linver and Silverberg, 1997; Paulson, 1994).

Academic success during the high school transition year is magnified by the accountability that is introduced at this time. A failure in the ninth grade may mean that the student cannot be classified as a tenth grader due to a lack of credits or that absences denied the student that credit as outlined by state policy even though the academic performance was acceptable. No matter the reason for the failure, the permanent transcript emphasizes that the student has failed. When making up the credits becomes more difficult, if not impossible to do in a reasonable amount of time, the student often decides to dropout of school and never returns (Roderick, 1995; Roderick and Camburn, 1999).

Schools across the United States are attempting to organize various transition programs designed to impact student academic achievement, behavior, and emotional stability. These programs consisting of various initiatives and differing levels of financial commitments all seek to reach-out to ninth graders (Reentz, 2002; Mac Iver and Epstein, 1991; Asher, 1987).


Dropping out of high school is a serious national problem that has social and economic implications for individuals and for society (Bonilla, 1993; Kelly and Gaskel, 1996; Waggoner, 1991).  For example, dropouts currently cost the United States an estimated $250 billion annually in lost earnings, taxes, and social services. Dropouts constitute 52% of those who receive welfare or are unemployed, 82% of the prison population, and 85% of the juveniles in court (Hodgkinson, 1998). Furthermore, dropouts have lower rates of intergenerational mobility (Morton, 1998; Stewart, 1999), lower levels of academic skills (McCombs, Whisler, and Erlandson, 1997; Stewart, 1999), and poorer levels of mental health (Brusca-Vega, Yawkey, and Gonzalez, 1996; Stewart, 1999) and physical health (Morton, 1998; Stewart, 1999) than non-dropouts do.

There are multiple explanations for the high dropout rate. Academic failure increases students’ alienation from school (Holt, 1995). Many begin a pattern of absenteeism that often escalates. A lack of attendance usually compounds academic problems. Potential dropouts are often identified as discipline problems. Lack of interest in school and poor academic performance may cause them to express their frustration by being disruptive in the classroom (Devine, 1996).

Overall, research indicates that the single-most important factor in predicting dropping out of high school is grade retention (Gibson, 1998; Peterson, 1998).  Many studies show that one-year’s retention can increase the dropout risk by 45% to 50% while retaining students in two grades increases the risk to as much as 90% (Altenbaugh, 1995; Anyon, 1997; Atkinson, 1994; Fine, 1994; Gittell, 1998; Gordon Press Publishers, 1998; Louis and Miles, 1990; Ravitch and Vitteritti, 1997).

 If retention is the primary predictor for dropping out of school, it becomes critical that educators address this problem. Denton (2001) in a study of retention rates around the nation found the highest retention rates are consistently in grade nine. Georgia , Delaware , Virginia , North Carolina , Mississippi , and Florida consistently report that ninth grade retention is greater than at any other grade level (Shepard and Smith, 1990).

Neild, Stoner-Eby, and Furstenberg presented a paper to the Harvard Civil Rights Project titled Connecting Entrance and Departure: The Transition to Ninth Grade and High School Dropout (Neild et al., 2001) which stated:

We find that despite an extensive set of pre-high school controls for family, achievement, aspirations, school engagement, and peer relationships, ninth grade outcomes add substantially to our ability to predict dropout. Our analysis suggests that ninth grade problems are not simply a reflection of what students bring with them when they enter high school. Our ability to predict dropout within four years of entering high school increases considerably when we know how students fare during their high school transition year.

Ninth graders who are retained due to academic and/or adjustment difficulties often find it difficult to form positive attachments and become integrated into more complex environments (Roderick, 1993). As several studies have noted, failure in ninth grade comes at a time when it will have a significant impact not only on academic performance, but also on social and emotional development. According to a study by Byrnes and Yamamoto, students find retention as the third most stressful concern in their lives behind blindness and the death of a parent (Byrnes and Yamamoto, 1984). Ninth grade retention clearly may be linked to significant increases in the chances that a student will drop out of school (Cataldo, 1990; Grissom and Shepard, 1989; Morgan and Hertzog, 1997; Rumberger, 2001).

 Robert Schwartz, president of Achieve, Inc. assessed the balance of higher standards and the dropout issue in a Harvard Graduate School of Education Press Release (2001):

As states impose new standards and high-stakes tests for graduation and promotion, some predict that our dropout problem will only get direr. Our challenge is to raise academic standards for all students while simultaneously ensuring that at-risk students receive the supports they need to meet the standards and stay in school.

Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University , underscored the need for effective interventions designed to keep students in schools in another Harvaard Graduate School of Education Press Release (2001).

Dropping out of school is a slow motion dive for most kids and we can see them approaching the edge long before they fall off. Targeting kids in the ninth grade, when they are most vulnerable to dropping out, is one effective way to curb the problem.

Study after study identifies the ninth grade as the critical point to intervene and prevent students from losing motivation, failing, and dropping out of school. Research concludes that the highest retention rates around the country are consistently found within the ninth grade, and retention rates are strongly correlated to the dropout rate, which has an impact on our country’s economic and social development (Reents, 2002; Denton, 2001; Cataldo, 1990; Grissom and Shepard, 1989; Morgan and Hertzog, 1997; Rumburger, 2001). Many school districts are finding the best way to address this need is by creating ninth grade academies or centers and schools within schools. These new initiatives are designed to smooth the transition to high school and give students the attention they need during this critical time (Reents, 2002).



The purpose of this study is to evaluate a ninth grade transition program. The outcome variables being assessed are academic achievement, attendance, and participation (See definition of terms).


In order to achieve the purpose of the study, answers to the following research questions were sought:

1.   Are there differences in the overall-year English grade point average between ninth graders who scored between a 380 – 420 on the eighth grade reading SOL and  participated in the treatment and those who did not during the years  2000-2001,  2001-2002, and 2002-2003?

2.   Are there differences in the overall-year math grade point average between ninth graders who scored between a 380 – 420 on the eighth grade math SOL and participated in the treatment and those who did not during the years 2000-2001, 2001-2002, and 2002-2003?

3.   Are there differences in the overall grade point average for the first grading period between ninth graders who scored between a 380 -420 on either the 8th grade math or reading SOL and  participated in the treatment and those who did not during the years  2000-2001, 2001-2002, and 2002-2003?

4.   Are there differences in the overall grade point average for the first semester between ninth graders who scored between a 380 – 420 on either the eighth grade math or reading SOL and participated in the treatment and those who did not during the years  2000-2001,  2001-2002, 2002-2003?

5.   Are there differences in the scores for the Standards of Learning End-of-Course Math Test taken between ninth graders who scored between a 380 – 420 on the eighth grade math SOL and participated in the treatment and those who did not during the years  2000-2001,  2001-2002, and 2002 – 2003?

6.   Are there differences in attendance rates between ninth graders who participated in the treatment and those who did not for the years 2000-2001, 2001-2002, and 2002-2003?

7.   Are there differences in the school-based club participation rate between ninth graders who participated in the treatment and those who did not during the years 2000-2001, 2001-2002, 2002-2003?


An examination of the data collected over the three years since this program was put in place at a suburban/urban public high school should provide important information to high school administrators who are considering effective strategies for providing support for ninth grade students in their schools.

The selected high school opened in August of 1998 just as the implementation of the state’s standards of learning initiative was begun. At the end of the school’s first year, the SOL results were dismal. With a 70% pass rate as a target to gain state accreditation, the high school’s data indicated that the first year school had only achieved a passing mark on two of the eleven end-of-course tests that were administered in the spring of 1999. The two subject areas that earned the designated pass rate were biology (73.6%) and chemistry (70.2%). Many of the scores were not even close. The three ninth grade end-of-course tests indicated the pass rates to be 57.8% in World History I, 51.7% in Earth Science, and 35.9% in Algebra I. Although the county school board set a target date of 2004 for the school to be accredited, the administration of the school boldly stated that the school would be fully accredited in just three years, by the spring of 2002. Many initiatives were implemented to address the needs of various groups of students.

In analyzing the first year data, administration noticed a large number of bubble students, those who score a 380 – 420 on an end-of-course test. In the three freshmen end-of-course tests, it was found that after the 1999 tests were administered, 30% of the students who took the World History I test were on the bubble, 29% who took Earth Science were on the bubble, and 28% bubble students were identified in Algebra I.  The administration believed that early identification and intervention with this segment of the population over time could take the school much closer to the pass rate necessary to gain full accreditation from the state.

Providing a strategy to earn full accreditation for the school is not the only potential value of this study. Since the discussion of the demographics of the population documents direct service in most years to a larger percentage of students who are identified as greater academic risks due to their minority and socioeconomic status, the study may be able to generalize strategies to decrease the achievement gap as well.

In a time when school budgets are shrinking, educators must attempt to find the best results for the least amount of funds. The Commonwealth of Virginia faces a revenue shortfall of 1.5 billion dollars according to Governor Mark Warner (2003); and news reports out of the county where the high school is located show that the county school superintendent’s $105 million funding request for the 2003-2004 school  year is $1.9 million more than what is projected to be available (Williams, 2003).

The total cost of the Leadership Academy is $12,300 (see Appendix D). This includes salaries, food, and all activities and supplies. Schools make literally hundreds of decisions all year that affect the budget.  The educational budget is the translation of educational needs into a fiscal plan that expresses the kind of educational program that the community will want to support because it is cost-effective and benefits the children of the school district (Ray, Hack, and Candoli, 2001).

While various school systems are making efforts to address the problems of transition to the ninth grade, relatively little information is available on the nature of these efforts (Duke, Bourdeaux, Epps, and Wilcox, 1998).  The results of this study may be beneficial to those schools that are searching for strategies to help ease the transition to ninth grade and for achieving state accreditation.


Although the design of this study meets an important need of the researcher when a true experimental approach may not be possible, there are limitations to the design as well.

1.   Although t-tests and chi square tests were employed to determine differences between the treatment and comparison groups on the variables of gender, race, and low socioeconomic status; no attempt was made to control for variables that may be related to the dependent measures. There are also many variables that may have had an effect on the dependent measures that were not assessed because they were not measured during the implementation of the program. For example, most educators are keenly aware of the positive impact of parental involvement in student achievement. Research indicates that when parents participate in children’s education, the result is an increase in student achievement and improvement of students’ attitudes toward learning (Caplan, Hall, Lubir, Fleming, 1997). This is just one of the many variables that may have influenced the study’s outcome but was not measured in any way.

2.    Random assignment was not a part of the methodology.

3.   Some aspects of the treatment such as the development of student relationships with peers and student familiarity with school procedures were not assessed because data were not collected.

Definition of Terms

The Treatment ( Leadership Academy ) involved a five day, five hours per day, summer contact period as well as the yearlong mentor program that included participants meeting with Leadership Academy personnel once or twice each month during the course of the school year. The students who received the treatment also were involved during freshman orientation activities (served as tour guides). In some instances, based on the evaluation by Leadership Academy staff, students were placed in more appropriate level classes in core subjects. Some students were also placed in guidance groups based upon need.

Bubble Students will be considered those students who score a 380 – 420 on an end-of-course exam.

Student Achievement   is defined as the academic success of a school population measured by standards of learning end-of course test results and academic course grade point averages.  (Research Questions 1 – 5)

Overall Academic Average   is defined as the total number of points for each grade divided by the total number of courses taken.  (Research Questions 3, 4)

Overall Subject Average is defined as the total number of points earned for each semester grade in each course divided by two. (Research Questions 1, 2)

First Grading Period is defined as the initial six-week period beginning the first day of school each year. (Research Question 3)

First Semester is defined as the initial eighteen-week period beginning the first day of school each year. (Research Questions 4)

Attendance   is defined as the number of full days that the student missed during the school year. (Research Question 6)

Student Participation  is defined as an individual’s membership in extracurricular activities such as school based clubs (Research Question 7)

School Based Clubs are organizations sponsored by faculty and staff of the high school as part of the extracurricular program. (Research Question 7)

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