‘It made me feel like nothing’: The impact of the ninth-grade transition (Pt. 1)

For many students, ninth grade is the chance to experience the first prom, the first comprehensive range of electives, and the first taste of adult-like independence. At the same time, ninth grade has been referred to as “the bulge,” the “holding tank,” and the point in the path to adulthood at which there are a vast number of problems all coalescing simultaneously.


Unfortunately, these monikers are truthful. Ninth-grade students experience high school environments that do not always match their developmental needs, struggle, and are retained. The latest data on eighth- through twelfth-grade enrollments show that the ninth grade encompasses the largest proportion of students and has regularly over the few decades. Meanwhile, the “tenth-grade dip” in enrollments results because students are not promoted or choose to drop out of school.



The likelihood of dropping out of school is greater than at any other time in the student’s

high school experience, and the decision is often made in the very first few weeks. Researchers do not mince their words when discussing ninth grade: “If students do not have a good experience that freshman year, the decision to drop out of high school is either consciously or subconsciously made at that time.” “The passage of students from middle grades to high school is the most difficult transition point in education.”


Three categories of ninth-grade issues will be discussed in the weeks ahead, though all are interrelated and overlapping.


1. Educational practices

2. School climate

3. Social structures


In this first week, we’ll focus on educational practices. If you are interested in implementing a middle school exit or high school entrance transition survey in your district, contact us to get started!


Educational Practices

Student achievement (i.e., GPA), attendance rates, and discipline referrals are predictors of student drop-out, and ninth-grade students are the most likely to struggle with each of these in the “sink-or-swim” mentality of high school.


Ninth-grade students feel lessons are long, monotonous, and inactive and taught by seemingly indifferent teachers in overcrowded classrooms where relationships among teachers and students are challenging to build. Unlike the team and pod models of many middle schools, high schools can feel uncaring, aloof, and cold because they are typically much larger, more impersonal, teacher-centered, and more competitive. Teachers of ninth-grade students—who are more likely to be new to the building, more inexperienced, uncertified, and have fewer professional networks—focus on their subject matter and devote less focus to relationship-building with students.


Students search for adults who can teach them study skills, time management, and identify other avenues for help, but because ninth-grade students report feeling high school as big and impersonal, they do not know how to reach out. One study found that ninth-grade students could name a staff member they found helpful, but none of the students in this research named a classroom teacher. This absence is consequential because relationships with teachers, in particular, are a vital marker of a successful transition and are more impactful on academic behaviors than students’ relationships with their peers. Students who graduate but are members of social circles of students who did not graduate identify positive relationships with teachers as a significant factor in their accomplishments. Students who bonded more strongly with their teachers in ninth grade have higher GPAs and feel more connected to their schools—both of which predict high school completion.


Nevertheless, teachers find it challenging to get to know students who come and go in 40- to 50-minute increments in schools set up by departments and not grades. Students who do not bond with a ninth-grade teacher have a weaker academic safety net. Ninth-grade students have lower attendance rates relative to their eighth-grade year, and attendance is the strongest predictor of overall grades. From a broad perspective, ninth-grade students miss the most days of school of any K-12 grade level: 9 percent versus a K-12 average of 5.3 percent.


Attendance issues often develop when students avoid work, feel work is more challenging than they had anticipated, perceive an overwhelming amount of work relative to middle school, and/or when students feel inadequate time to complete work. Reflecting the cyclical nature of these transition issues, students do not know whom to turn for help navigating these dilemmas, and parents’ watchful eyes are elsewhere as students push for independence. Students feel threatened by additional work and academic challenges, shut down, and more likely to skip school to avoid work altogether. Missed work fuels more absences, and this, too, cycles. Students who miss 20-24 days of school have a mere 10 percent chance of graduating. Students who miss 40 or more days have a 0 percent chance of graduating with their peers.


Both students and parents may not fully understand that, unlike elementary and middle schools, promotion in high school requires credit accumulation. One study described the shift to credits as a “major transition issue,” as students “have no clue” about the difference in academic policy until “they see a zero” on their transcripts. Left on their own, students and parents make course choices that are inappropriate for a pattern of a study leading to high school graduation or college/career aspirations. Students who failed ninth-grade courses later reported that they wish they had opportunities to understand better the impact ninth grade can make on the likelihood of graduation. Even those who do understand credit policies can feel overwhelmed making course decisions that feel like they are laying the foundation for future college and career trajectories and do not always receive individualized registration support. Feelings of being overwhelmed are not unreasonable. Students who do not accumulate enough credits in ninth grade do not pass to tenth grade. Students who do not pass to tenth grade have a much greater chance of dropping out. Students who drop out forgo economic benefits and often get stuck in low-paying jobs.


School Perceptions takes these transition points very seriously—we wouldn’t author white papers on the topic if we didn’t! We would love to help you get the data you need from your students who are exiting middle school or entering high school. Contact us to learn more information and get started!

The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Rob DeMeuse, Project Manager & Research Director.

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