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Many colleges try hard to identify potential talent -- especially from disadvantaged areas -- early in high school. In many cases, they use test scores to identify those with potential. And in many cases, high school students, their parents and counselors, and the college admissions officers who evaluate their credentials focus heavily on junior year grade point average -- or changes in GPA from year to year.

New research from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research suggests that the ninth-grade GPA may be much more significant than many previously thought -- and may provide insights on how colleges and others should act. This may be particularly the case when colleges are trying to identify those in low-income areas.

The consortium studied the ninth-grade marks of 187,335 students in the Chicago Public Schools who were freshmen in high school from 2006 through 2013. Students at charter and other special high schools were excluded. The sample was 51 percent black and 37 percent Latino. The researchers then followed these students for up to six years, to look at relationships between ninth-grade grades and high school graduation and college enrollment.

Among the findings:

  • There was "a strong relationship" between GPA in ninth and 11th grades, with most students having roughly the same grades in both years.
  • Ninth-grade marks predicted whether students would graduate. "Very few F students ended up graduating in four or five years, whereas almost all students with freshman A, B, and C-average GPAs ended up graduating on time," the research report says.
  • The relationship continues when predicting whether a student will go to college. "About 18 percent of students who had an F freshman GPA went on to college. About 35 percent of students with D's went to college; about 50 percent of students with C's did. B and A students fared better: 60 percent of B students went to college and 70 percent of A students did. The relationship between freshman GPA and college-going is more linear and incremental than the relationship between freshman GPA and high school graduation, where avoiding F's made a big difference in the likelihood of graduating."
  • When examining only students who did enroll in college, the study found that ninth grade marks also predicted retention through the end of freshman year of college.

In each analysis, the study found that grades were better at predicting the various levels of academic success than were standardized tests.

The report concludes by noting reasons why grades may be particularly powerful predictors, even from just the first year of high school.

"Grades have been criticized for being 'subjective,' suggesting that teachers apply an uneven or nonobjective set of standards when they assign grades. This research did not directly address the question of how much subjectivity there is in grades, but it did show that grades do include an objective achievement component, even though schools and teachers do not use standardized criteria in grading. It is likely that factors such as effort, behavior and attitude, for example, are influencing grades," the report says. "But this does not detract from the validity of grades; in fact, these other factors are likely to be contributing to the validity of grades: in addition to content knowledge as measured by standardized tests, teachers appear to be accurately measuring other important skills and characteristics of students."

The authors of the report are John Q. Easton, vice president of programs at the Spencer Foundation; Esperanza Johnson, a program associate at Spencer; and Lauren Sartain, senior research associate at the University of Chicago Consortium.

Via email, Easton said he believed that other large school districts would have similar results. He said that he did not want anyone to think that what happens after ninth grade isn't important. "It’s more that a successful freshman year paves the way for future success," he said.

As for colleges, he said, "The findings might suggest that colleges could be scouting freshmen, keeping their eyes on them throughout high school, and even perhaps supporting them. Maybe some college prep organizations should focus on freshmen, keep them on track and get them into good colleges. The biggest takeaway is that a successful freshman year smooths the way for future success in high school and after."

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