The transition from middle school to high school is a pivotal moment in a student's academic career. In addition to adapting to an unfamiliar school environment, students are asked to lean on their prior learning and explore a host of challenging topics: systematic equations, iambic pentameter, mitosis, the Reconstruction period—and so on. Some students flourish and quickly find their footing on the path to post-secondary success, but many experience a precipitous decline in academic performance (Seeskin, Nagaoka, & Mahaffie, 2018). Going from eighth to ninth grade math, in particular, often proves to be a hurdle that students struggle to clear. And, given the sequential nature of math curricula, students may find it difficult to recover from an early stumble.
This challenge is all too familiar to students, educators, and leaders in Denver Public Schools (DPS). In spring 2022, less than one-third of all ninth-grade DPS students met or exceeded grade-level benchmarks in math on the PSAT, which DPS uses as a benchmark assessment in math and literacy for grades nine through eleven. For Black and Hispanic students, who comprise nearly two-thirds of DPS' grade 9 students, only about a quarter met or exceeded benchmarks for grade-level performance on the PSAT. Improving students' success in math and narrowing opportunity gaps is a central focus for DPS leaders. Moreover, like so many districts across the nation, academic performance declined significantly during the pandemic (U.S. Department of Education, 2022).
The first step to improving math achievement and persistence is identifying barriers that may be holding some students back, as well as understanding the supports that have allowed other students to excel. DPS leaders suspect that the transition to high school may exacerbate students' existing negative perceptions of math, academic self-efficacy, and interest in math. However, evidence on specific factors that help account for why some students in the district succeed in grade 9 math and others do not is currently limited.
That's where REL Central comes in. After carefully considering how the district might leverage REL Central's expertise and resources to increase equity and student academic achievement, DPS and REL Central have developed two initial projects aimed at understanding what affects math success at the critical ninth grade juncture.
First, REL Central will work with core district leaders and a cohort of DPS schools to better understand student experiences leading up to and during ninth grade math. The project will be grounded in student perceptions of their own experiences: Students may be asked to reflect on their transition from middle to high school; share their perceptions of the utility of counseling, teacher instruction, curricula, and/or other supports they have received; and describe their perceptions of math and their own math abilities. Once these data are collected, the REL Central team will work with DPS to examine and document student experiences during the ninth-grade year that may facilitate success (such as positive relationships between students and teachers and personalized academic supports) and those that may inhibit success (such as preexisting negative perceptions of math and their own math abilities).
Second, REL Central is planning an applied research study to identify the characteristics of students who are more successful in ninth grade math and those who are less successful to identify patterns in student experiences. Understanding the role that prior math courses, academic success, academic and transitional supports received, attendance, and disciplinary records may play in students' success in ninth grade math is critical to achieving the district's goal of increasing performance for all students, but especially those most in need of additional support.
The lessons learned from these two projects will ultimately help support DPS' efforts to increase the number of students who are successful in ninth grade math and smooth the transition from middle to high school. REL Central and DPS are excited to partner together on this vital work. The team is looking forward to starting these projects in the coming months, and we'll keep you updated as we do.
Seeskin, A., Nagaoka, J., & Mahaffie, S. (2018). Hidden Risk: Changes in GPA across the transition to high school. Research Report. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/2019-01/Hidden%20Risk%20Changes%20in-Oct2018-Consortium.pdf
U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2003–2022 Mathematics Assessments, Grade 8. https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/mathematics/districts/groups/?grade=8.