Evaluation of Ninth Grade Academies


The transition into high school is a volatile time for adolescents and a precarious point in the educational pipeline. Evidence shows ninth grade to be one of the leakiest junctures in this pipeline. MDRC’s research in urban districts suggests that as many as 40 percent of students fail to get promoted from ninth to tenth grade on time, and fewer than 20 percent of those students recover from failure and go on to graduate.

The current high school reform movement has drawn attention to practices, like Ninth Grade Academies (NGAs), that are designed to support the transition to high school. NGAs are self-contained units located in a designated area of the school. Each academy has its own dedicated teaching faculty, guidance staff, and social services, creating a complete community for this transition year. These NGAs are organized around interdisciplinary teacher teams that have students and planning times in common. NGAs support personal relationships among students, among teachers, and between students and teachers. The teaming of teachers and students supports more consistent classroom composition and student peer groups while decreasing anonymity and increasing students’ sense of community. Students have a consistent group of teachers who are accountable for their success, and teachers have a chance to coordinate their course work to better meet the needs of their students.

Little is known about the extent to which NGAs are being used or about their impact on student engagement and achievement in school, although the available evidence is promising. MDRC’s comprehensive study, conducted in partnership with Johns Hopkins University and Broward County Public Schools, represents the first investigation of the large-scale implementation and effectiveness of NGAs as a strategy to improve students’ successful transition into and through high school.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The purpose of the project is to assess the implementation and impact of Ninth Grade Academies (NGAs) on student engagement and performance in ninth grade. Specifically, there are three research goals:

  1. To understand how NGAs are implemented in Broward County, Florida, and assess whether students attending those NGAs do better academically, on average, than students in similar schools without NGAs.

  2. To assess whether students attending NGAs in schools in other districts across Florida (where NGAs are not part of a district initiative) do better academically, on average, than students in similar schools without NGAs.

  3. To study the development, pilot testing, and feasibility of enhancement strategies based on strong NGA elements identified in Broward County schools. These enhancements include developing teacher leaders and district-level professional learning communities, creating teams of teachers who review student data and respond to student issues, and developing active community partnerships.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The evaluation will investigate the implementation and impact of the NGA model in Broward County, as well as the impact of the NGA model in schools outside Broward County. The study will include high schools located in Florida’s large urban districts.

The impact analyses will employ a comparative interrupted time series design to evaluate the effect of NGAs on students’ academic and behavioral outcomes in ninth grade. The primary outcome in the analysis will be credits earned in ninth grade, which is an important predictor of high school graduation. The analysis will also look at effects on secondary outcomes, such as students’ course marks, their scores on state tests, their attendance, and disciplinary infractions.

Additional research will investigate the implementation of the NGA enhancements and identify lessons from them that can inform future development work.