A key element of improving graduation rates and preparing students for college and career begins when students are in middle school. Middle school academic performance is a key predictor of success in ninth grade where course completion is the most accurate predictor of graduation. The middle school years lay a foundation for success in high school, college, and career, but many students leave middle school underprepared for the rigors of high school work. This lack of readiness, combined with the socio-emotional changes students experience during this time, has a major impact on high school and post-secondary success.
Ninth graders have the lowest grade point average, the most missed classes, and more behavior referrals compared to other high school grade levels. Nearly 22 percent of students repeat a ninth-grade course, and more students fail ninth grade than any other grade in high school. And those students who do fail ninth grade are at a much greater risk of dropping out.
Although these statistics seem dire, we outlined three ways educators can take steps to effectively prepare middle school students for high school and to support those students who may enter high school underprepared.
1) Improve Educator Articulation Between Eighth and Ninth Grade
Preparing students for high school is a process for both students and teachers. For middle school teachers to prepare students for the challenges that lie ahead, they must be familiar with the ninth-grade curriculum so they understand what skills students need to master and the level of rigor they will face. Just as ninth-grade teachers can better support incoming freshman if they have a clear understanding of what students are expected to learn from the eighth-grade curriculum.
Professional development can be a key component in bridging this gap, providing teachers with best practices and opportunities to collaborate and share information. Middle school and high school teachers can learn from observing one another’s classrooms, discuss how middle school standards feed into high school standards and work together to support students during the critical transition from middle school to high school.
2) Provide Key Skills for Success
Students need to build not only academic skills, but also often overlooked soft skills such as perseverance and self-direction. Successfully transitioning to high school means students must become engaged learners with a growth mindset. Eighth graders should be building learning skills that foster independent learning, support differentiated practice, and develop higher order thinking skills necessary for success in high school.
According to Kelly Purvis, the middle school curriculum coordinator at Dorchester School District Two, students finishing eighth grade aren’t much different from kids starting ninth grade. “We still need to be explicit in laying out expectations for them,” she said. “Some kids are more advanced than others and can make the transition easily versus others that need more support and lots of affirmation.”
3) Implement Instruction that Meets the Unique Needs of Each Student
Instruction that effectively prepares students for high school does not approach all students in the same way. When school leaders consider students as individuals, they can foster an environment that enables students to learn in a variety of ways and paces. Many students have missed critical information in middle school and have failed to develop important readiness skills prior to entering the ninth grade. These weak foundations, if left unaddressed, can become large gaps that widen as students advance grade levels.