Reading & Reacting: Ninth Grade: The Most Important Year in High School

Photo: Students in high school hall

Courtesy of The Atlantic – Photo by Kevin Wolf/AP Photo

By MIchele WIllens @ The Atlantic

Having taught ninth grade for my entire teaching career, by choice, I did not need a lot of convincing of this article’s central claim. I remain steadfast in the belief that ninth grade is the most important year of high school for so many more reasons than are cited in this piece. Still, Willens begins to outline a case for ninth grade’s importance, paying particular attention to its impact on drop-outs.

Not only are youths entering the intimidating institution that is high school, they are experiencing the usual adolescent angst and depending on poor decision-making skills. “Students entering high school—just at the time brains are in flux—still have the propensity to be impulsive and are prone to making mistakes,” says Washington D.C. psychoanalyst Dr. Linda Stern. “They are therefore experimental and trying to separate and might try substances that interfere with the normal developmental process. Put all that together with raging hormones, the normal academic pressures, and meeting a whole new group to be judged by.”

As I routinely remind colleagues and parents, ninth grade students have a whole lot going on all at once. There is no shortage of transitions required of students entering high school, without adding the substance experimentation that might happen.

The material is more challenging; the demands are greater and more complex. Clever kids that might have been able to coast frequently find innate ability is no longer enough. The expectations often jump considerably, requiring greater self-advocacy, self-efficacy, and self-discipline. Supports are available but typically must be sought. Struggling kids used to being handled through their day discover that they are more on their own than than they are accustomed.

On the most fundamental level, the clock is ticking on their need to prove that they are college ready. In Massachusetts, as in many states, tenth grade is time for the high stakes state exam required for graduation. In fact, half of the instructional time students spend in school between the exams administered in eight grade and tenth are spent in ninth grade classrooms. Simply put, the bulk of adjustments, interventions, and learning is spent in ninth grade.

While the school where I work does not face drop-out issues, the pressure and stakes are felt acutely by incoming freshmen, as well as their parents. Most of first semester is simply about navigating the volume and velocity of adjustments associated with the increased demands.

Students simply can no longer be advanced without performing. This reality is what in part makes Diane Ravitch, a source in the article, suspicious of the newfound focus schools have on ninth grade.

Many schools allow students to advance ready or not, and when they reach the ninth the stakes are higher. The high-stakes testing starts in the tenth grade so kids are being held back not for their own sake but to protect their school’s statistics. If the focus were really on the students, people would be thinking creatively about how to help them instead of thinking if them as data points.

I suspect with the new evaluation systems, focused on accountability, teachers are will feel increasing pressure too. This may hamper some of the creative thinking Ravitch is requesting. More accountability usually means more data points.

Nevertheless, I am fond of remarking that ninth grade students arrive a whole lot more middle schoolers than high schoolers. Often those early autumn classes are akin to wrangling cats. Yet, within a year, those students who looked more like little kids than young men and women transform before our very eyes.

The growth can be extraordinary, but foundations must be cured regardless. That first year is arguably more revealing about each individual student than any other, which is important because sometimes when they return in the fall for tenth grade some of them are unrecognizable.

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