9th grade: dropout year

Ninth-grade gridlock is keeping boys out of college, writes Richard Whitmire of Why Boys Fail. Boys who fall behind and repeat ninth grade never catch up. For many, ninth grade is now the “dropout year.”

Nationally there were 113 boys for every 100 girls in ninth grade in 2007, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. A Johns Hopkins study finds 12 percent of boys and 9 percent of girls repeated ninth grade in 2006-07.

. . . Baltimore’s Patterson High School, located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. If you showed up to recruit the Class of 2009 on graduation day, you would have found 164 female and 107 male students. A quirk of birthrates? Not exactly. Had you checked on the ninth-grade class there in September 2008, you would have found 278 girls and 400 boys.

. . . In the highest-poverty school districts, as few as 15 percent of students held back in the ninth grade make it to graduation day, according to other research from Johns Hopkins.

Of course, passing those failing boys (and girls) on to 10th grade is no guarantee of success. I think we need catch-up middle schools that prepare kids for high school. And we need a vocational alternative for kids who lack the skills and motivation to pass college-prep classes.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I think catch up needs to be done as soon as it appears any student is lagging behind. THis could be kindergarten. Middle school may be too late for many. I also believe the cut off date for birthdays for boys should be pushed back — say March 31. Many boys need an extra year to mature emotionally to be ready to excel in school…

  2. I’ve taught in high school for over 20 years, and I have to say, 9th grade is NOT the problem. The problem is the preceding years, when the male students will be passed on, regardless of their lack of skills.
    In the first 3 grades, the needed skill is verbal fluency. That’s where the kids whose parents talked to them, as opposed to setting them in front of the TV, start to pull ahead. Yeah, that even goes for “educational” TV – it isn’t as good in language development as a caretaker.
    In 4-8, the needed skill is reading/writing. Those kids who can’t manage that get increasingly left behind. Since all the other work in class is delivered through reading, these kids not only lack the language arts skills, they start to fall behind in content.
    In 9-12, the needed skill is math. Those students who haven’t managed to acquire basic arithmetic skills are incapable of passing even the most basic Algebra class – no matter how many times they take it (and, some do take it every year, only to fail).
    At every point, the students who haven’t managed to acquire the skills fall behind. By the time they get to high school, they have the skill set of elementary students, but are expected to work at a high school level.
    This continual social promotion, without remediation, is madness. The ones that have been losing out under this system are also the ones who DON’T learn using “whole-language”, “multiple intelligences” and “role-playing”. Boys, in general, need structured, heavily phonics-based, old-fashioned math teaching, non-touchy-feeling, EDUCATION.
    When they used those methods, boys, in general, learned. In my elementary classes, perhaps 1-2 kids didn’t pick up on reading by 3rd grade. Now, it’s whole classrooms. An occasional kids couldn’t manage basic math, enough to handle a cashier’s job. Now, it’s the norm, so much so, that fast-food jobs include a cash register with pictures.
    So, girls are succeeding. Great. Now, perhaps we can manage to set up classrooms that help boys reach for the top.

  3. Well, let’s be honest here. Do boys ever really mature? I don’t think so. My senior boys are as immature as any middle schooler. Holding them back for that reason is pointless. We just need to deal with the immaturity.

    And yes, strong structure is necessary, but so is a sense of humor. And in urban schools, a way to break the cycle of drug dealers/gang members being the role models.

  4. While the (implied) threat of being held back a grade has historically functioned as an effective motivator to get students to apply themselves, we may be reaching the point of diminishing returns on its use — for two reasons. One is our shrinking willingness to apply that sanction, because we now know that being retained has a backwash effect — for those who escape retention because of increased effort, the effect is good, but for those who are in fact retained, motivation is impaired in the future. In addition, instruction in the lower grades has become so ineffective at preparing students for middle school and high school (for at least a substantial subgroup of children) that there are entire cohorts of students who take and fail grade-level classes repeatedly in high school. The instruction itself isn’t the problem, rather the fact that students are being put into classes that require skills beyond what they have is the problem.

  5. Linda has it pretty much down, although I think that most boys are perfectly capable of reading as first graders, IF properly taught: PHONICS. Let’s get back to real teaching of foundational reading and arithmetic skills; the teacher-led classroom and direct instruction. Structure, self-control and effort are needed for mastery and struggling students need help IMMEDIATELY. Good curriculum, with strong content across the disciplines and an emphasis on good literature is also necessary; even young kids can learn content far above their own reading level if it is read to them. My own kids would lobby for the end of the naval-gazing and touchy-feely stuff. Include non-fiction and boy-friendly fiction. Forget mandated creative writing and journaling and teach composition, starting with copying and dictation.

    As the mother of three boys, I can’t agree with the necessity of a delayed start for boys. Two of mine just missed the cutoff and went ahead and the third was almost a year behind the cutoff. Given that many/most boys with birthdays in the bottom of the age bracket were not being started, my sons were 1-2 years younger than their classmates, as was my daughter. None of them had any maturity/social problems, or with academics. At one time, Orange County (FL) would evaluate any child and make a recommendation for delay, regular placement or acceleration. Since any cutoff date is arbitrary, that approach has always made sense to me.

  6. I don’t understand that 113/100 ratio of boys to girls in the 9th grade, nationally yet. What happened to the girls? Doesn’t everyone go to ninth grade? Are there dropouts before that? Why would girls drop out before ninth grade? What’s the ratio of boys to girls in eighth grade, or sixth grade?

    I have heard of a natural imbalance in the birth rate of boys to girls – more boys born balanced by higher mortality for boys before they grow up. But I thought that was more like one or two per cent, not thirteen per cent. Where did the girls go? Should we be concerned?

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Lightly seasoned — sorry to hear about your boys. Both of mine are very mature and we did hold both of them back one year and worked with them at home. So, based on our experience it worked but I know it is not for all. (Private schools start kids at age 6 in kindergarten while government schools cannot wait to get the money and demand kids start at age 5.) Of course, we also got them out of failing government schools and into incredible private schools where the opportunities at home combined with those at schools worked wonders. My boys are much more mature than their peers both in middle school, high school and college…I truly have no clue why this is…must be something in their nature…

    Many boys do mature later…you cannot just work with it. Schools should stop social promotion and move kids forward when they have mastered the subject matter at hand regardless of age. Grades and required seat time need to go…

    Yes, as Linda F said let’s design classrooms that work for boys…work for all students and stop leaving the boys behind.

  8. Brian,

    Whitmire clarifies in the comments on his article that the primary reason for the 9th grade imbalance is that boys are more often made to repeat ninth grade. It seems that if boys are also more likely than girls to be held back in earlier grades, this could also be a contributing factor.

    By 12th grade, this imbalance reverses because those boys (and girls) who had been held back tend to drop out or just stop showing up to school.

  9. You all are assuming that kids who flunk ninth grade do so because of weak skills, but of course that’s not true.

    Teachers grade for compliance, for the most part. A kid with weak skills who shows up every day and does his homework will pass. A kid with decent to excellent skils who doesn’t show up every day or doesn’t do his homework will fail.

    So the kids who are failing ninth grade are doing so not because of weak skills, but because of a low investment in school (referred to by moralists as “immaturity”).

    If we actually flunked kids based on an objective standard of ability, the ninth grade failure rate would increase–but many of the kids now failing would pass.

  10. Brian: our building does not have a significant drop-out rate (about 2%), and we have about 15% more boys. I’d assumed it was due to private schools (the boys “bounce” back into public school at higher rates), but maybe not.

    tim: no skin off my nose; I didn’t give birth to them — I just teach them. Maybe it isn’t fair to compare seniors to 7th graders since one symptom of senioritis is regression and nostalgia (Mrs. -, can we play Heads Up Seven Up??? Please??. No, trace the bird imagery James Joyce.)

    I once had a boy who would run up my wall and do back flips. Had a heck of a time getting him through high school, but we did and now he’s a very successful stuntman. Red shirting him would have just prolonged the misery. I have another who is so mature that I think he emerged from the womb knowing how to do the laundry. I take them as they come to me.

    (My own personal descendents are female and on the immature side — we’re a family of late bloomers. It doesn’t bother us.)

  11. Cal…
    Any evidence AT ALL for those assertions??

  12. There is some merit to what Cal says. The ones who are passing 9th grade are not necessarily paragons of knowledge and skill; they just don’t rebel.

    Linda and Mom4 have the diagnosis right (though I think Linda may not realize the extent to which a “skills” deficit is really a knowledge deficit). Timber is right that we should nip these problems in the bud when they start –not six years later. Intensive summer schools seem like one solution that may be more palatable to the general public than increased retention.

  13. I think all of you have great points, so I won’t repeat them using my own experiences. I would have never believed that schools weren’t boy friendly places if I hadn’t experienced it firsthand.

    I would like to add that the expectations of students involving executive functions have changed dramatically since I was in school. I think many parents notice this right off the bat in terms of homework and the juggling of classwork. My college load was easier to keep track of than my middle schooler’s. Schools treat executive function issues as though they are character defects.

    Also, the over-reliance on projects, coloring, personal feelings, class participation, and on and on has done a number on a lot of boys. In what looks like an attempt to level some playing field (those that can’t write, make a poster!), schools have used these ideas, not as extra credit, but as major grades.

  14. Lightly Seasoned has it right: girls turn into women; boys get bigger. The average 14-yeear-old girl is more emotionally mature than the average 35-year-old boy.

    Classes are nowhere. With a well-plotted self-paced curriculum in English, Science, and Math, we would not need grades or grade levels. We’d get better results if we put students on the track, give them supportive pats on the back (gentle shoves down the track) and let each student move at his/her own pace.

  15. In urban school districts, it is not uncommon for girls to drop out of middle school because of pregnancy. In one study of urban grandmothers, some of them were 28 and the average was 34. (at least one grandkid under school age, as I remember) Do the math.

  16. Addendum: Susan’s last paragraph should be hammered into the head of every teacher. That artsy-crafty, touchy-feely stuff is a huge turn-off, not only to boys but to some girls. (including mine) I think it tends to reflect the teachers’ own preferences, as does the choice of reading. I had to push for permission for my kids to use Jack London, Mark Twain, Rosemary Sutcliff, Swiss Family Robinson, Bright Candles, Sherlock Holmes,non-fiction including biography. etc. And they all loved the short story “Ransom of Red Chief”. By the time my younger two came along, their teachers hadn’t even heard of some of the above. They much preferred Judy Blume, Babysitter’s Club etc.

  17. On the first day of class, my 8th grade math teacher told us that he switched from high school to junior high because it was too late for students to catch up once they got to high school. This was in 1970 in Baton Rouge, La.

  18. Study skills need to be explicitly taught, starting in ES but really emphasized in middle school. I’m referring to things like outlining, taking notes, reading chapter headings and end-of-chapter questions prior to reading the chapter, how to organize a notebook by subject etc. It’s also useful for kids to learn how to calculate their own GPA for each subject.

    I’d also like to see newspapers and news/commentary magazines return to the classroom. It used to be that newspapers were written at about a sixth-grade level and I remember having assignments, bringing in clippings etc. at least by third grade. The boys, especially, loved math assignments about baseball; calculating ERAs, RBIs, batting averages, standings etc.

  19. Pick your poison: retention or social promotion. Neither strategy works consistently and there are huge consequences for both. It doesn’t have to be that way.

    We have perpetuated a 150-year old system of grouping children into grade levels even though we know that 1) it is not how kids best learn, 2) it is not how the workplace is organized, and 3) it is the root of why kids are not “at grade level”.

    Learning happens for individual children at different rates and times. It is uneven and often unpredictable. Great teaching can overcome just about everything– but it can’t always overcome a child’s natural maturation process. The solution is un-graded schools that group children in multi-age settings. Non-traditional, counter-intuitive, and hard to understand for lay people. But powerful and transformative for children and the schools that serve them.

  20. Joanne, regarding your closing sentence, I often hear from my fellow teachers that college prep courses–the “a through g” requirements to get into CSUs/UCs–are so-called jobs skills classes, because kids will need that level of education to function “in the 21st Century”. Thinking that every kid needs to go, should go, or is capable of going to college strikes me as utter foolishness, and it sets up as failures those kids who do not have college potential. College is only one avenue to potential success in life.

  21. Any evidence AT ALL for those assertions??

    Which evidence? That teachers grade for compliance? Well documented, despite the fact that all research says grades should focus primarily on demonstrated performance.

    That there’s no real correlation between grades and ability? Again, well-documented. Ask any school how many of their kids flunked English in ninth grade but got proficient in STAR testing, and how many passed English but got Below Basic in STAR testing (or whatever the state test is for you).

    Anecdotally–keeping in mind that I worked with a couple hundred students a year from all demographics–I have routinely seen black and Hispanic kids with 1.5 GPAs and mid 500 SAT scores, as well as those with 4.0 GPAs who struggle to break 400 (that’s per section).

    This is not a complicated situation. Happens all the time.

  22. If we look at the dynamics of how kids are doing in school, it’s pretty clear, females are whipping males from middle school on.

    The main problem is what happens in grades 1-5, and the reason I say that is because if a child (male or female) doesn’t know their alphabet, simple spelling, and basic addition, and some basic reading, it will be a struggle for them in elementary school due to all the fads that want to be passed off as real education in the United States.

    I wish we still grouped students by ability in the US, rather than by age, so that a student who is in 3rd grade is doing math at a 5th grade level, reading at a 2nd grade level, and writing at a 3rd grade level will be in classes along with students who are roughly at the same level of comprehension.

    IMO, if the student hasn’t mastered basic skills by the time they leave elementary school, they’ll get further behind in middle school (never mind high school).

    I have seen article where single sex education in some areas has made great improvements for both male and female students at all grade levels (but the ACLU doesn’t seem to like that).


  23. If we look at the dynamics of how kids are doing in school, it’s pretty clear, females are whipping males from middle school on.

    It’s not all that clear at all. Girls get better grades. Boys get better test scores. Boys are often being held back from advanced classes because of their lower grades in classes where they know as much as more than girls–all because the girl was more compliant than the boy.

    This happens with non-compliant girls as well, of course.

  24. I think the post, as well as some of the comments are neglecting a procedural change that happens in some districts with ninth grade. When I was writing about the Denver schools, I learned that in elementary and middle schools promotion to the next grade was an all-or-nothing decision, you either go on to fourth grade with fourth-grade classmates, or you stay behind in third grade, and basically one teacher makes that decision.

    But in high school class standing is set by the number of classes passed. You’re a freshman until you have passed a certain number of classes, so kids who have been barely scraping by but doing not quite badly enough to be held back come to ninth grade and fail two of six classes, say. At the end of the year, they don’t have enough credits for sophomore status, so they stay freshmen. But they don’t have to repeat the classes they passed, so it’s not quite the same as staying in third grade.

    Having a teacher who grades for compliance — I don’t doubt there are some who do — ought to be more of a problem when a child has only one teacher, but that wouldn’t explain the huge increase in retention in ninth grade, when he has five or six.

    Cal, above, was asked for evidence for his(her) more implausible assertions, and has nothing better to say in support of himself than that they are “well documented” and assurance that he knows some anecdotal examples. Sorry, Cal, that’s not persuasive.

    “That there’s no real correlation between grades and ability? Again, well-documented.”

    C’mon, Cal, “no correlation?” Well documented where? Or what accounts for the high correlation between grades and standardized test scores? Or the fact that both are significant in predicted college success? The correlations aren’t perfect, which is why there are anecdotal exceptions in any school you ask about, but so what? Men are taller than women, just not all of them.

  25. Having a teacher who grades for compliance — I don’t doubt there are some who do — ought to be more of a problem when a child has only one teacher, but that wouldn’t explain the huge increase in retention in ninth grade, when he has five or six.

    Are you joking? Surveys routinely show that teachers grade for compliance. Grading for compliance means that all work is weighted relatively equally. In math, homework is weighted 40% or higher, in English, a “log” is graded equally to an essay, and so on. Any grade for “effort” or “participation” or “behavior” is grading for compliance, whether 10% or 50%. Stanford runs several schools in which demonstrated ability is just 20% of the grade. Everything other component of the grade is behavior-related. That’s by no means unusual.

    Some schools are so tired of teachers grading by compliance that they forcibly set standards, particularly in math. Several Bay Area schools mandated that math homework be no more than 15% of the grade, because students with high math skills were failing math and many students with no ability at all were passing because they routinely got their homework done. When the policy changed, the passing rate didn’t improve tremendously, but their test scores did (except in algebra, because the poor students never get beyond algebra).

    Most teachers grade for compliance, not just one or two. And I’m a teacher who teachers primarily ninth graders (humanities, algebra, geometry), so I’m well aware that ninth graders face more than one teacher and how “passing” ninth grade works. You shouldn’t assume.

    Or what accounts for the high correlation between grades and standardized test scores?

    There isn’t a high correlation between grades and standardized test scores. There is a correlation, yes. Within a school, the likelihood that those with the highest grades have the best test scores is solid. But it’s just a likelihood. It is more likely that an A student will have higher test scores than a B student, but only about 20% more likely. That’s not a terrific correlation. Most teachers do not have an anywhere close to perfect correlation between their highest grades and their highest test scores–and the correlation should be close to perfect. At the very least, the correlation should be 80%, rather than 20-30%.

    The SAT has a welldocumented discrepancy between grades and test scores. Study:

    The nondiscrepant
    group (NDS) included students with standardized SAT scores
    and HSGPA within one standard deviation of each other. The
    high school discrepant group (HSD) included students with
    HSGPA at least one standard deviation above SAT scores,
    and the SAT discrepant group (SATD) included students with
    SAT scores at least one standard deviation above HSGPA. The
    results indicated that approximately two-thirds of the students
    were in the NDS group, 17.6 percent were in the HSD group,
    and 17.1 percent were in the SATD group.

    In other words, a full 1/3 of the students taking the SAT had grades either too high or too low for their test scores. A third of the student population is pretty dramatically affected by teachers grading for compliance–and yes, that’s what causes this discrepancy.

    Female students and minority students were more
    heavily represented in the HSD group than in the other two
    groups. The proportion of African American and Hispanic
    students in the HSD group was approximately twice that
    found in the SATD group and 1.5 times that in the NDS
    group. In addition, students in the HSD group had generally
    lower family income and attainment.

    Translated: Black and Hispanic students were heavily represented in the students with grades that were higher than their SAT scores, and girls more than boys. They don’t mention it here, but if you look at the tables, you can see that whites represent 72% of the SAT discrepant students (high SAT scores) and boys represent 65.9%0–and given how few minorities of any sort are in the SAT discrepant group, that suggests that most of the kids with low grades and high test scores are white boys.

    Certainly, some of the boys failing ninth grade have low skills. My point is only that compliance grading creates a situation in which we can’t really tell whether all the boys who are failing are the ones with low skills. Many girls (and some boys) are passing with low skills because they do their homework, not because they have skills.

    But that teachers grade excessively for compliance is beyond dispute. I’m surprised anyone would argue about it, except they probably don’t understand that most (not all) homework, status, and participation grades are compliance proxies.

  26. Vocational education is being cut in my district because the classes are not A-G nor are they tested on CSTs (California Standards Test). If they can’t test you, you are not an effective teacher. When I started teaching, there were 8 business teachers in our department; when I depart in June there will be 3. No one has been replaced in 5 years.

  27. In the suburban HS one of my kids attended, he was given a B+ in Honors Algebra II. He had no grades below high 90s on tests and quizzes but was given the B+ because he hadn’t done all the homework. We didn’t have particular problems with that idea until the following semester, when another student received an A in the same class (block scheduling) from the same teacher, despite having only 1 C, 2 Ds rest Fs on tests and quizzes. The A was based on perfect homework (done by whom?). That is academic malpractice, and I have an idea that it’s more likely to hurt boys. I think that they are less willing than girls to do homework when they already know the material. That son was also dinged a bit in calc, for the same reason. BTW, he had a perfect score on the level 2 math SAT II and a 5 on AP calc BC, so he clearly knew the material.


  1. […] here.  These numbers (and the human situation they represent) are depressing.  Joanne Jacobs suggests that “catch-up middle schools” and more access to vocational pathways could be part of […]