California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

The chance to engage potential dropouts

The middle grades are a critical juncture in a student’s academic career, and warning signs that a student may drop out are often easy to spot. Researchers in Philadelphia found that educators could identify as early as sixth grade 50 percent of all students who eventually drop out of high school. The four indicators are low attendance, poor classroom behavior as noted by one or more teachers, failing mathematics, or failing English.1

In California, the number of ninth-grade students who drop out of schools over the past five years has been approximately 12,000 students per year. A major concern is that an increasing number of ninth-grade students from lower socioeconomic households drop out. Therefore, the middle grades is the last chance for many students who fall into the achievement gap to catch up to their grade-level peers.

Dropout prevention research has emphasized the need to identify students at risk of dropping out of high school and to develop interventions that result in students graduating. Research shows that integrating and analyzing data—student attendance, grades, and course failures—can accurately identify students at the greatest risk of dropping out. A systematic approach to at-risk student identification coupled with effective interventions can help keep students in school and on track to graduate.

In its issue brief, Developing Early Warning Systems to Identify Potential High School Dropouts (Outside Source), the National High School Center presents an overview of research related to dropout prevention and provides a tool designed to help high school educators identify students and implement interventions. The early warning system provides the research and theoretical framework to help schools think through how their existing data and interventions can be integrated to identify and respond to at-risk students.

The California Department of Education (CDE) is partnering with the National High School Center and the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd to focus attention on dropout prevention in the middle grades by identifying and assisting at-risk students before they reach high school. Using the high school program as a model, CDE is leading the way to adapt the tool for use in the middle grades. Attendance, grades, and course failures also appear to be valid indicators of identifying at-risk middle grades students. The earlier students are identified as at-risk of dropping out, the sooner supports and appropriate dropout prevention strategies can be provided to those students.

The article, Defining Dropouts: A Statistical Portrait (U.S. Department of Educaiton Archived file), cautions:

Dropping out of school is a complicated and multifaceted phenomenon. Researchers find that dropping out is a process, not an event. It is relatively rare for students to make a snap judgment to leave school. The reasons students commonly offer for leaving school—for example, low grades, inability to get along, working, and pregnancy—may not be the true causes but rationalizations or simplifications of more complex circumstances.2

Preventing Student Disengagement in Middle School, Robert Balfanz, Liza Herzog, Douglas J. Mac Iver (2007) is a study that follows 12,000 students from 1996-2004 to demonstrate how four predictive indicators reflecting poor attendance, misbehavior, and course failures in sixth grade can be used to identify 60 percent of the students who will not graduate from high school. Fortunately, by combining effective whole-school reforms with attendance, behavioral, and extra-help interventions, graduation rates can be substantially increased. A summary of the study is available from Johns Hopkins University.

In the Spotlight

Sierra Vista Middle School, Hacienda La Puente School District
During her doctoral coursework, Sierra Vista principal, Sue Kaiser, noted that research by Balfanz, Herzog, and Mac Iver (Preventing Student Disengagement in Middle Schools, 2007) identified four high yield characteristics of sixth grade students who have a strong likelihood of slipping off the graduation pathway. As Kaiser thought about the four characteristics (attendance, failing English, failing mathematics, or behavior sanctions such as suspensions), she wanted staff members to know the strengths and risks of each student. So Kaiser instituted a program called Who Owns Our Students? to give responsibility for a group of students to each third period teacher. Teachers keep a log that tracks each of the four high yield characteristics for each of their students by name.

Translating the high yield research has proven to be a powerful experience for Sierra Vista staff. The research suggests practical recommendations such as shepherding at risk students by pairing them with mentors. The data-tracking method used by Sierra Vista staff members to shepherd the children of Sierra Vista is producing favorable results. For example, as a result of the homeroom reporting, students who need interventions are identified more quickly, and a teacher advocate is always present in any intervention team meetings. The system has resulted in a 47 percent reduction in tardy students and an 18 percent reduction in suspensions. While Sierra Vista continues to be labeled as a Program Improvement (PI) school, it has achieved a similar school rank of seven out of ten in achievement when measured along side of schools with similar demographic. Sierra Vista students and teachers have continued to exceed the goal each year for the Academic Performance Index (API), ensuring the closing of the achievement gap in this school.


Developmental responsiveness is critical at the middle grades to engage young adolescents before they give up on school. Schools that do not make adequate yearly progress for two consecutive years are designated as being in Program Improvement under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As a consequence those schools may provide additional time for reading and math interventions. As a result, they often eliminate science, social studies, and electives to make room for more mathematics and reading classes. However, researchers caution schools about narrowing the curriculum.

The negative consequences of curriculum narrowing are even greater for low-income students, which means the practice can end up magnifying achievement gaps. That is because more affluent students have alternative ways of gaining ‘world knowledge’ even when their schools do a poor job of teaching about art, culture, history, geography, and the natural world. They can pick it up from trips and vacations, visits to museums and other cultural settings, and even from conversations with other family members in the household. In contrast, disadvantaged students are highly dependent on schools to provide them with a rich vocabulary and broad knowledge about the world outside their neighborhoods. For many poor urban and rural children, schools provide the primary access to that background knowledge. For example, a seminal study of vocabulary development in very young children found that by age 3, the spoken vocabularies of children with professional parents exceeded the spoken vocabularies of parents in welfare families.3

In the Spotlight

Holmes International Middle School, Los Angeles Unified School District, a 2007 Schools to Watch™-Taking Center Stage Model School
Seventh- and eighth-grade students at Holmes take a semester-long exploratory wheel that includes art and music (learning to sing and play instruments). In addition, students learn to use the computerized piano lab. This exploratory wheel helps to prepare students who want to join one of the school’s many performing musical groups.


Related Links

Equity in the Middle Grades

Closing the Achievement Gap by Providing Access

1 R. Balfanz and L. Herzog, Keeping Middle Grade Students on Track to Graduation: Initial Analysis and Implications. Presentation given at the second Regional Middle Grades Symposium, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 2005.
2Defining Dropouts: A Statistical Portrait, an archived file from the U.S. Department of Education.
3 Craig D. Jerald, The Hidden Costs of Curriculum Narrowing (PDF; Outside Source), The Center Issue Brief (August 2006), 4.
4 Craig D. Jerald, Dropping Out Is Hard to Do (PDF; Outside Source), Issue Brief (June 2006), 1-6.

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