NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Ninth Grade Number Swell

February 4, 2004

With the rising use of standardized exams to measure school performance, ninth grade is becoming a watershed moment at many schools across the country. Increasingly, students at risk of failing pivotal tests commonly given in the 10th and 11th grades are being held back, sometimes more than once, resulting in a significant nationwide bulge in the number of students enrolled in ninth grade, according to a report by Walter Haney of Boston College.

The decline occurred as President Clinton ushered in the school accountability measures strengthened by the No Child Left Behind Act:

  • Four-year high school graduation rates steadily rose in the early 1980s, but declined in the 1990s.
  • The national goal was set of raising the four-year graduation rate to 90 percent by 2000; however instead of increasing the rate, the share of on-time graduations declined from 78.4 percent in 1991-92 to 74.4 percent in 2000-01.
  • While 3.4 million students were enrolled in the eighth grade in the 1996-97 school year, 871,000 of them failed to graduate from high school in four years.
  • However, if the graduation rate of the early 1990s had remained unchanged, 135,000 more of those eighth graders would have left high school with diplomas in hand.

Haney contends that the overall decline in graduation rates is a result of two trends: increasing course requirements and growing demands that high school students pass specific standardized tests, commonly called exit exams, to receive a diploma.

Source: Diana Jean Schemo, "Ninth Grade Key to Success, but Reasons Are Debated," New York Times, January 18, 2004; based upon Walter Haney et al., "The Education Pipeline in the United States: 1970-2000," National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, January 2004.

For study text


Browse more articles on Education Issues