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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Maryland Warning System IDs Potential High School Dropouts in First Grade

Published:  August 22, 2013

The use of data in schools has become an increasingly prevalent practice, particularly in light of federal efforts to resolve some of the technical and practical challenges around student data. Schools are able to identify problems stemming from students missing too much school, teachers can revise their lesson plans for particular students who need instructional help, and administrators can track teachers’ impacts on students. What’s less common is Montgomery County, Maryland’s efforts to note which students are most likely to drop out of high school – as early as first grade.

The first-grade early warning system was developed by looking back at the 2011 and 2012 high school senior classes, tracing their academic histories through report cards and attendance data. An astonishing 75 percent of the dropouts in that class had warning signs, including missing a lot of school, earning low scores in math or reading, or being disciplined with suspensions, by the end of first grade.

The specific warning indicators used were the ABCs – attendance, behavior, and coursework. Students absent at least nine times by the second half of first grade were twice as likely to drop out of high school; students suspended (including in- or out-of-school suspensions) were as much as five times as likely to drop out; and students below grade level in reading or math or students earning low scores on their report cards in the second half of first grade were twice as likely to drop out.

Of course, those odds are still low enough as to not be a sure thing. For one thing, nearly half of first-graders carried at least one of those warning signs, while only 7.4 percent ultimately dropped out. And as Hechinger Report notes, 20 percent of first-graders with a warning signal no longer had that indicator by sixth grade, and 14 percent of first-graders who were not identified as possible eventual dropouts developed an indicator by sixth grade.

The system will undoubtedly raise concern among families and child advocates who worry that the system isn’t developmentally appropriate for such young kids. Slapping first-graders with a “Future Dropout” label seems harsh, especially given that so many of those kids will manage to lose the label down the line.

But the opportunities for good are significant, despite concerns with over-identification and unfair labeling. Parents could receive early warning that their kids need extra help, and even get the kind of coaching on literacy and other skills that could help them give their child a leg up. Many families have little information about how their kids are developing academically or social-emotionally; this could be a way to draw parents into the schools and ensure family engagement early on.

And children in the early grades are generally well-suited for early interventions. Efforts to provide them with extra instruction and tutoring and to offer their families resources so their children can be more successful in school could be more effective than with older students. However, young children are frequently left out of early warning systems and other data-driven efforts because test data don’t exist for most children before third grade. Using comprehensive, whole-child metrics to find out that a first-grader doesn’t have enough support, either at home or in the classroom – even if those children might ultimately get back on track on their own – could mean greater support for that child early on, and success in graduating from high school a decade down the line.

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