Graduation Rates and Keeping Students “On Track”

A report from the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) has found that improvements gained from keeping students on track their freshmen year in high school were sustained as those students continued in 10th and 11th grades, and followed with large increases in graduation rates.

A student is considered “on track” in 9th grade if they finished the year with at least five credits and no more than one semester F in a core class. If the student was on track at the end of 9th grade, CCSR researchers found, that student was four times more likely to graduate high school than a student who has fallen off-track. According to Education Week, researchers found that being on track freshmen year “was a better predictor of high school graduation than race, income, neighborhood where the student lives, and prior test scores combined.”

Teachers and administrators in Chicago have implemented procedures to keep track of students’ attendance and progress, sharing notes on those who were falling behind so they could follow up with the student and answer the causes of decreased attendance and/or academic achievement. In Chicago, the accountability system has resulted in a graduation rate increase from 47 percent in 1999 to 69 percent in 2014. The district predicts an 84 percent graduation rate for the class of 2018.

The implementation of the accountability system in 2008 was the catalyst for the turnaround. Contrary to the common belief that students fail in 9th grade because the academic demands become harder, researchers found it was more likely that students struggle with increased freedom and responsibility in high school. When various teachers see them only for an hour a day, it is difficult to keep track. Thus, “note-sharing” has helped teachers and administrators use the data on students to reach them before they fall off track.

Researchers have brought their findings to Capitol Hill to share with policymakers as an answer to addressing similar problems with low graduation and attendance rates in other parts of the country.

Getting back to the heart of the issue affecting low attendance which leads to academic difficulty, policymakers must take into account the need for access to music education in secondary schools. As a 2006 Harris Poll showed, schools with music programs have significantly higher graduation and attendance rates than those without music programs. For many students, their role in their band, choir, or orchestra, leading and participating in an ensemble toward a shared goal of producing a high-level performance, motivates students to attend school daily. That sense of responsibility as they collaborate with peers who depend on their presence gets students in schools, gets them excited about education.

As one student shared with us in our broader mindedTMShare Your Story” campaign,

“Around 8th and 9th [grade], I began to stray away from music in my life. I got in with a bad crowd, was always in trouble, and let my grades slip. In 10th grade, I became much more involved with music. I had found my niche. I found a strong group of friends, my work ethic and grades became better, and I stayed away from drugs. Music became my life and saved me from a troubled future.”

The Harmony Project and researchers at Northwestern University discovered similar findings in Los Angeles. “Since 2008, over 90 percent of high school seniors who participated in Harmony Project’s free music lessons went on to college,” reported Huffington Post, “even though the high school dropout rates in the surrounding Los Angeles areas can reach up to 50 percent, according to a Northwestern press release.”

The benefits of music programs go beyond academic success, of course. “One thing we know for sure, and that is that if we want to get serious about closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged kids, we should provide five days a week of music instruction in every Title 1 inner-city school in the country, from K through grade five,” said Dr. Margaret Martin, founder of Harmony Project. “If you do that, you could save a whole lot of money on remediation, and you’d save a whole lot more money on juvenile incarceration because … we don’t have behavior problems with our students. They learn how to work together from an early age, and those are lessons that they never lose.”

Catherina Hurlburt, Special Assistant, September 23, 2014. © National Association for Music Education (