From Tails to Heads: Momentum Metrics for Postsecondary Preparation

Thursday, August 20, 2020
Lauren Norton
Associate Director

This week, ESG released a new report—From Tails to Heads: Building Momentum for Postsecondary Success—which offers a framework for a new set of postsecondary transition metrics for states and communities to prioritize in order to help more students successfully move to and through higher education. Collectively, the “Momentum Metrics” identified in the report represent eight of the most predictive indicators of postsecondary preparation, retention, and success. 

Over the next week, we’re digging into the three main phases of a student’s transition to higher education and the Momentum Metrics associated with each one: Preparing, Applying, and Enrolling. First up: Preparing. 

To build a strong foundation for postsecondary success, it is essential that students start high school on the right foot. Below is a look at three critical indicators that students are on track for academic success in higher education. 

9th Grade GPA: Numerous studies have shown that GPA is a better predictor of postsecondary success and less discriminatory than standardized test scores. 9th-grade GPA, in particular, has been found to be predictive of 11th-grade GPA, postsecondary enrollment, and first-year retention. While it is worthwhile to track GPA throughout a student’s high school career, by focusing specifically on tracking 9th-grade GPA, schools, districts, and states can prioritize early interventions for the students who are most at risk of falling behind. With the gaps in academic preparation exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, the shift by higher education institutions to consider GPA in place of standardized assessments for admissions and placement in light of SAT and ACT cancellations, and the likelihood that incoming 9th graders face a non-traditional start to their high school experience this fall, prioritizing 9th-grade GPA will ensure that students start high school on the right track.

In partnership with the UChicago Consortium, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) found that students who were “on track” during their freshman year (defined as earning at least five course credits and failing no more than one semester of a core course) were three times more likely to graduate from high school than their off-track peers, and 9th-grade GPA was nearly twice as predictive of high school graduation as standardized test scores. In addition, students who did not end their freshman year with a 3.0 GPA or above had a difficult time attaining one by the time they graduated. Leveraging these findings, CPS developed a rapid reporting system to alert schools of 9th-grade students with low grades, and some schools appointed “on-track coaches” to intervene with tutoring programs, peer mentors, and after-school help sessions. 

Potential for Advanced Coursework: Participation in early postsecondary opportunities—Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), and dual enrollment—has been shown to increase high school graduation, postsecondary enrollment, and college persistence rates. Yet, significant gaps in access exist for low-income students and students of color. White students are twice as likely to participate in dual enrollment courses than their Black and Hispanic peers. These gaps exist despite the fact that the country has improved tools to identify students who can succeed in advanced coursework. For instance, AP Potential, developed by the College Board, identifies students who are predicted to have a greater than 60 percent chance of earning a passing score on a particular AP exam based on their performance on the PSAT or SAT. Similar metrics can be developed using state assessment data and/or course grades for projecting potential for success with dual enrollment, industry-recognized credentials, IB, or other options that enable a student to earn early postsecondary credit while in high school. For instance, Equal Opportunity Schools has found success in using non-test-based methods for predicting advanced course potential, especially among students of color.

San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) leveraged the data in the College Board’s AP Potential report to generate a series of customized reports that list the potential to succeed for every student at every high school campus for every AP course offered by the College Board. Rather than simply using the binary definition of AP Potential—either a student has potential or does not—SAISD went further by grouping students into 10 percentage point bands. The school-level report lists the potential for all incoming students to help guide their advising practices around enrollment in advanced coursework, with school counselors targeting outreach to students who were identified with potential. Schools also use this report to make decisions about course offerings, adding courses with high numbers of students with the potential to succeed and removing—or finding alternate delivery options, such as dual enrollment—those with low numbers of students identified with potential. 

High-Quality Pathway Participation: High-quality career pathways seamlessly integrate rigorous, skills-based curricula with aligned work-based learning opportunities, and provide students with the opportunity to earn high-value industry-recognized credentials and, in some cases, early postsecondary course credit to propel them toward a postsecondary credential. Students that complete a high-quality pathway—particularly low-income and male students—are more likely to graduate from high school, attend a two- or four-year postsecondary institution, and receive higher compensation after high school. However, not all pathways are made equal. Some pave the way to further education and training and ultimately lead to viable careers; others are more dated and no longer provide access to quality options. Particularly in the current climate of economic recovery, it is essential that states, districts, and schools implement pathways that are not just responsive to the immediate needs of the local labor market, but are also looking at where the labor market is likely to head in the future. Education leaders should analyze labor market data and partner closely with employers to design and adapt pathway programs that equitably equip students for success.

Kentucky has systematically analyzed labor market information to identify the top five priority industry sectors and specific fields within them that meet rigorous skill, demand, and wage thresholds. The state has brought together K-12 districts, postsecondary institutions, and employers to design career pathways that meet the needs of the identified industries. The Department of Education tracks district-by-district pathway offerings to examine alignment to the high-demand industry sectors. It also reviews the number of juniors and seniors concentrating in pathways leading to the top occupations in those high-demand pathways. Both measures are captured on a “heat map” and used to target assistance and bring transparency to the state’s work. At the same time, as part of the program approval process, the Department of Education disallows local districts from using state or federal funds to support pathways that are not aligned with these priority industries and occupations. That policy has been key to phasing out pathways that lack labor market relevance.