What academic factors ensure student success? Is it a student’s attendance record in kindergarten, third grade reading level, or their understanding of ninth grade geometry? While tracing success to a specific class or quality certainly overstates the concept of critical academic indicators, there is merit to the argument that specific factors present at pivotal points in a student’s education have the potential to predict the likelihood of on-time high school graduation and postsecondary achievement.

As students start to file into their new classrooms for the 2014-15 school year, teachers should be aware of early warning signs for specific grade levels and student populations that could serve as representative risk-factors for future success. Further, administrators may want to consider developing a district-specific accountability system to help both parents and teachers mitigate these risks through early identification and targeted academic interventions.

Indicators, Implications, and Interventions

Attendance, grades, and exposure to college‐level coursework are consistently viewed as meaningful indicators of future success for students in middle and high school. While a smaller body of research examines indicators at the elementary school level, available evidence from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and American Institutes for Research suggests that reading proficiency and attendance in the early grades may have a lasting impact on student outcomes.

Grades 3, 6, and 9, specifically, hold a number of defined indicators due to the school environments in which students are exposed to and the developmental milestones occurring within these formative years, as outlined in the table below. For instance, studies that consider indicators for grade 6 or grade 9 capture differences at the crucial transition periods from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school.

The Formative Years: Indicators Across the Education Spectrum

Grade LevelIndicatorImplicationIntervention
3rd GradeReading ProficiencyPoor literacy impacts likelihood of on-time high school graduation and predicts aggressive behavior in grade 5.Targeted identification of students with both basic reading skills and below basic non-proficiency before grade 8 can lessen negative graduation implications.
6th GradeAttendanceAttendance rates below 80% are present in 23% of non-graduates.Sixth graders falling off the graduation path typically remain in school for at least five more years, indicating there is time to intervene with students that continue attempts to participate and succeed in their schooling.
Failed CoursesCourse failures in Mathematics and English are a better predictor of non-graduation than low test scores, at 21% and 17% respectively.Teachers should pay attention to students who fail classes, but also those with Ds – as D grades denote considerably lower graduation odds than students with C averages or higher.
Unsatisfactory BehaviorLow teacher-recorded behavior grades are present in 50% of non-graduates.Risk behaviors to correct before grade 7 include: not paying attention in class, acting out, and not getting along with teachers in a sustained fashion. These qualities signal disengagement and are predictive of diminishing academic motivation across the remainder of middle school.
9th GradeGPA and Credit StatusCourse grades and overall performance in grade 9 is 80% accurate in predicting on-time high school graduation. Students with higher course performance and credit status are 3.5 times more likely to graduate high school on time.Districts should invest in counselors to monitor student progress, as strong academic advising programs play an important factor in increasing student performance and ensuring high school persistence.
Course RigorIn high school, taking more advanced math courses increases the probability of persistence.  Further, following the successful completion of dual enrollment courses, students are more likely to enroll and succeed in college.Schools need the resources to provide a curriculum like AP/IB courses to all students. When these resources are unavailable, many districts have augmented their curriculum to ensure current courses mirror the type of academic challenges present in AP/IB courses.

Sources: Hanover Research, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Attendance Works,  University of ChicagoAmerican Institutes for Research, National Middle School Foundation, Balfanz, R., L. Herzog, D.J. Mac Iver., Center for Public Education

Elementary School Indicators

Grade 3 is a natural choice for researchers examining elementary‐level indicators because federal law requires the administration of state assessments beginning at this point in a students’ educational career.  More important to the use of the grade 3 benchmark, however, is evidence from The Children’s Reading Foundation that a student in grade 4 who reads at a first or second grade level “understands less than one‐third to one‐half of his or her printed curriculum,” thus elevating the relative importance of reading skills as students progress past grade 3. Findings from a 2012 Annie E. Casey Foundation study demonstrate the relative predictive power of grade 3 reading proficiency for identifying students at risk of not graduating from high school. This study determined that about 16% of students who are not reading proficiently by the conclusion of third grade failed to graduate from high school on time – a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers. Although most students in this study who were not identified as proficient readers by grade 3 went on to recover and graduate within five years of entering high school, the 12% disparity in graduation rates for proficient and not proficient readers demonstrates a clear opportunity for intervention targeted at the third grade level.

Middle School Indicators

To keep middle school students on the path to graduation, researchers have identified five early warning signs with strong predictive power in grade 6: attendance rates below 80 percent, failure of a core English or mathematics course, out of school suspension, and behavior grades. Taken together, these five flags could be used to identify 60% of sixth graders who would not graduate within one year of the on‐time graduation benchmark. Furthermore, students with at least one flag in grade 6 had only a 29% five‐year graduation rate.

Grade 6 is not the only critical middle school year, as grade 7 GPA and grade 8 mathematics rigor are also linked to higher achievement and high school success. As Silver, Saunders, and Zarate report:

At every level, at least as early as grade 6, test scores are predictive of graduation – and the relationship is persistent over time. Fewer than half of students scoring below the 50th percentile will graduate, whether we are talking about 6th‐grade, 7th‐grade, or 8th‐grade scores, and whether we are talking about performance in math or language arts. On the other hand, nearly three quarters of students with higher scores will go on to graduate.

High School Indicators

Course grades, standardized test scores, and exposure to college-level coursework are predictive of high school student success. Regardless of prior academic achievement or socioeconomic background, higher-level courses – particularly in STEM fields – lead to high school persistence, finds the Center for Public Education. Further, these academic characteristics are just as important for high school graduation as they are for college persistence. Students are more likely to drop out of college after their first year than any other point in their postsecondary career, and a students’ high school GPA is consistently considered  the best predictor of not only freshman grades in college, but of four-year college outcomes as well.

As the demand for college-educated workers is currently outpacing the nation’s supply of graduates, developing college- and career-readiness programming at the high school level becomes an increasingly crucial district-level strategy to improve students’ future postsecondary retention and matriculation rates.

Developing a District Accountability System

The predictive power of specific academic indicators varies substantially across districts and student populations, and as such, using multiple indicators is likely to improve the validity of a community‐based accountability system. Districts have access to data on a range of indicators with varying degrees of predictive power and may develop a more accurate indicator system by considering direct indicators of student outcomes, such as course grades and assessment scores, as well as factors that indirectly affect student learning, such as attendance and behavior. Weaker indicators, such as standardized test scores, may be more useful in conjunction with stronger indicators, such as course grades or rigor.

There are several approaches to the development of a comprehensive indicator system across the K-12 landscape. The College Readiness Indicator System (CRIS), a partnership between the Brown University Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR) and the Stanford University John W. Gardner Center (JGC), provides districts with a “menu” of college readiness indicators by level (individual, setting, system) and dimension (academic preparedness, academic tenacity, college knowledge). Conversely, The Road Map Project developed a listing of on-track indicators within the following categories: Health and Ready for Kindergarten, Supported and Successful in School, Graduate from High School/College and Career-Ready, and Earn a College Degree or Credential.

While these resources provide a helpful framework, a district-specific and research-driven approach may present the most actionable route for accountability system development due to the wide variability of indicators between districts. The “Strategy in Action” case study below illuminates how one high-achieving district applied Hanover’s research when developing a personalized approach to accountability.

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Strategy in Action: Harnessing the Predictive Power of Your District’s Data

The Need: When a high-achieving district wanted to design a local academic accountability system, the superintendent requested guidance from Hanover Research. In identifying a set of key indicators to track, the district not only wanted to include items cited in the literature as valid and reliable predictors of college- and career-readiness, but also sought measures that would resonate with the district’s most important stakeholders—students and their parents.

The Report: To address this research need, analysts examined the relationship between student outcomes and a range of academic indicators, including grades, test scores, attendance, and behavior. The report first considered the strength of these indicators for specific grade levels and student populations, and then profiled two different approaches to the development of a comprehensive academic indicator system.

The Outcome: Although Hanover found that the most reliable accountability systems typically incorporate multiple measures, the exact indicators used often vary by district—depending on, among other factors, the demographics of the student population served. As no one-size-fits-all solution exists, Hanover and the district have begun working on an approach tailored to this high-achieving district’s own unique circumstances and needs. To that end, Hanover will be examining several years of the district’s student-level data to uncover the best predictors of outcomes such as acceptance and enrollment at a highly-selective college or university. Evolving from a literature review to a highly-customized data analysis, this sequence of projects is an excellent example of the ways in which Hanover’s core capabilities can be applied in complementary ways to support our partners.

Hanover Research