‘It made me feel like nothing’: The impact of the ninth-grade transition (Pt. 3)

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 are discussed in this series of white papers, though all are interrelated and overlapping.


1. Educational practices

2. School climate

3. Social structures


The first week of our white paper series discussed educational practices, and last week, we focused on school climate and social structures. This week, the final week in the series, examines underserved populations and the necessity of transition programs. If you are interested in implementing a middle school exit or high school entrance transition survey in your district, contact us to get started!


Tying the Freshman Transition Knot

Students are excited for their ninth-grade year, and most expect to have a positive high school experience. The transition can provide more freedom, more academic choices, a bigger menu of extra-curricular activities, new friendships, and new crushes. However, as the text above lays out, the transition can be precarious. A poor ninth-grade transition can result in negative consequences such as decreased attendance, diminished academic achievement, delinquency, drug abuse, truancy, and suicidal thoughts and attempts.



Of particular concern are students experiencing poverty. Students from wealthier families report an easier transition to high school and smoother progress toward graduation. Students in poverty express a desire to attend college but may lack appropriate support systems at home during an otherwise already vulnerable time, erratic parent work schedules, and sibling or elder care-taking responsibilities. Economic status is a better predictor of dropping out of high school than ethnicity, age, and academic achievement. Similarly, students who already struggle academically and socially in middle school experience amplified issues once the transition is made to high school.


Grade nine is the most critical time to provide student interventions that can, quite literally, affect the course of students’ lives. This is not hyperbolic. The educational, climate, and social changes students experience mean schools must have a program in place to gently guide students into their high school years. There are many types of freshman transition programs, but the skills that should be taught are not groundbreaking. For instance, students who learn to set mastery goals (learning new material and improving past performance) have greater math achievement than students who set performance goals (competing with other students for relatively high scores).


Regardless of programming options, transition support cannot end once students arrive at the high school level. One researcher puts it as follows, “Although there is nothing wrong with pre-high school [transition] efforts, such strategies are comparable to premarital counseling: it's a great idea, but young couples are going to need some additional guidance once they tie the knot.” Success in the first year of high school directly affects the probability a student graduates and is even more critical than middle school achievement or students’ backgrounds.


The transition from one school to the next will come up faster than we think! 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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