The innovative ground that has been opened this year between eighth and ninth grades in Milwaukee Public Schools offers some decidedly unattractive academic scenery, including bad attendance and horrible grades, according to new information from MPS administrators.
The only consolation, they say: Things probably were worse in the prior years.
The plan implemented this year to stem “social promotions” from middle school to high school means that, as of January, one out of every 10 students in their first year of high school was not a real ninth-grader but an “eighth grade transition” or “8-T” student who had not demonstrated the academic proficiency expected to pass eighth grade.
Overall, those students showed up for class only 58% of the time and their overall grade-point average for the first semester was 0.7, equal to a D-minus, according to the data, which will be presented to a School Board committee Monday night.
Only a relative handful of students who started the year in the 8-T program have succeeded so far this year in meeting the standards to become regular ninth-graders.
But the number of 8-T’s declined from 790 in October to 529 in January as many were reclassified as needing bilingual education or special education services; transferred to alternative schools; moved; or, in the case of about 80, disappeared from the system, likely as dropouts before reaching ninth grade. In a report in October, a separate group of 111 who had not passed the proficiencies was listed as having dropped out or left the system without a known destination.
Deputy Superintendent Willie Jude said there had been snafus in launching the program, but that things are getting better.
He said he expected that many of the current 8-T students will qualify for ninth grade by the end of this school year and will be able to catch up with their class. Those who don’t qualify will generally be assigned to alternative schools for next year.
“Overall, I think the program is working,” Jude said. “It is meeting the intent it was designed for, which is to allow kids to transition to high school while working on areas of weakness that have been identified.”
As for the poor record the students have compiled, Jude said: “We know from the past that it is a group that probably would have disappeared by October.” Within the poor overall record are signs of improvement, he suggested.
In 1997, the School Board voted to require students, as of June 2000, to demonstrate proficiency in four areas in order to graduate from eighth grade. Officials agreed the widespread practice had been to pass students along to ninth grade, even if they weren’t ready for high school work. When that happens, many of them — some suggested generally about a quarter of all freshmen — got stuck when they couldn’t get passing grades. That created a bulge in ninth-grade enrollment.
The School Board’s original intention was to keep the students who didn’t pass the proficiencies enrolled in middle schools until they did so.
But when practical issues related to keeping hundreds of students in eighth grade were examined, plans were changed so that most of them would be moved to high schools as transition students. The 8-T students are not given normal high school privileges, including taking part in extracurricular activities.
Many of those students take at least some ninth-grade courses, but they also get classes of no more than 15 students aimed at their proficiency weaknesses and they are supposed to get computer time to use a software curriculum designed to raise their proficiency levels. The launching of that computer program was troubled and slow, Jude said, but it is operating better now.
Administrators said the data show that the more time students spend using the software curriculum, the better they do on tests aimed at showing they meet the proficiencies. However, the standard used in the report to define a high user of the software was 8.6 hours of computer time during the first semester.
Numbers tell the story
How deep an academic hole the 8-T students are in is clear in the new data.
For example, 70% of them had a grade-point average below 1.0 and, among those in the 70%, attendance was 47%. In other words, they missed school more often than they showed up.
Among an unspecified number who became 8-T students after attending alternative schools for eighth grade, the average grade point for the first semester of high school was 0.3. For those coming out of conventional middle schools, the grade-point average was 0.5. Those coming out of kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools did the best — their average was 0.98.
At a time when the number of K-8 programs in MPS is expected to rise rapidly, the report shows that students coming out of K-8 schools had higher grade-point averages across the range of ninth-graders and 8-T students.
For example, among those who passed their proficiencies by the main route available, those from K-8 schools compiled grade-point averages of 2.3 in their first semester in high school. Those from middle schools had a GPA of 2.0 and those from alternative schools came in at 0.9.
MPS budgeted $2.8 million for the transition program for this school year and expects to spend $2.5 million or less, Jude said. He expects the administration to seek $2.7 million for the program for next year.
This year’s eighth-graders who do not meet the proficiency standards by the end of the school year will have a chance to work on the computer curriculum during summer school and avoid being in the 8-T program next fall, Jude said.