Identifying Risk and Raising Resilience
When we think about school improvement planning to impact student achievement, the most at-risk students are of prime concern. The process of school improvement involves identifying at-risk students and planning strategies to promote their learning.
What Does the Research Say?
Predictive research supports our identifying the most at-risk students. Moreover, we know that risk is cumulative. Research conducted by the York Region District School Board concludes that the likelihood of a student identified as exceptional/social adjustment leaving early (dropping out) was 45 per cent. If the student was male from a single-parent family, the probability of leaving early was 73 per cent (Phylian, 2009).
My last blog entry states that high absence reduces the probability of graduating. Similarly, a recent study by the Toronto District School Board that illustrates the cumulative effect of risk states that having fewer than eight credits by the end of Grade 9 reduces the probability of graduating (Zheng, 2017).
Figure 1 represents the cumulative impact of high absence on students with fewer than eight credits at the end of Grade 9 (Zheng, 2017).
The probability of graduating for a student with seven credits and good attendance (less than 0.5 per cent absence) is 79 per cent. The probability of a student with seven credits and poor attendance (16 per cent absence or about 29 days absent) is 42 per cent. The cumulative impact of missing one credit and high absence decreases the probability of graduating such that students with this profile are more likely to drop out than to graduate.
Students in Grade 8 with EQAO reading or math scores at Level 1 have a 59 per cent probability of graduating from high school. Students at Level 0 come in at 43 per cent, and exempt students have a 28 per cent probability of graduating. Grade 8 students who are absent 16 per cent of the time have a 53 percent probability of graduating.
Figure 2 shows the cumulative effect of students’ Grade 6 achievement in EQAO mathematics and absenteeism in Grade 8 on their graduation outcomes (Zheng, 2017).
As can been seen, there is an eight per cent probability of graduating for a Grade 8 student who was exempt from Grade 6 EQAO in mathematics and absent in Grade 8 more than 16 per cent of the time. Thus, the most at-risk student in Grade 8 obtained low EQAO results in Grade 6 and had high absence. We can identify that cohort of Grade 8 students about to transition to Grade 9 for purposes of putting supports in place to mitigate against their risk.
Supporting Students with Planned Strategies
Certain protective factors can positively impact on risk. Grade 8 students who enroll in a credit summer Reach Ahead program increase their probability of graduating (Zheng, 2015). Students who are assigned a “caring adult” are more engaged in school and are more likely to attend. (Zheng, 2009). The literature talks about caring adults making a home-school connection, and engaging with the parents of high school students through making a home visit during the summer. While I have seen no research that has documented the impact of this practice, parental engagement is a powerful protective factor supporting student success.
Schools engage in a series of transition meetings as part of the Student Success program. If research-based criteria are used to identify those who are at-risk (e.g. high absence, low EQAO scores, special education identification), and those students are encouraged to attend a Reaching Ahead program and, assigned a “caring adult” who engages with the student and his or her parents, the predictive impact of risk factors can be ameliorated.
An interesting project which incorporates these elements and that seems to be positively impacting student achievement, is an FNMI-focused project in the Keewatin Patricia School district. Students are identified on the basis of their being of FNMI background. The homes of incoming FNMI Grade 9 students are visited during the summer, and students are assigned a “caring adult.” These students are flagged in a system called Compass for Success, teachers communicate about the students on a regular basis, eliminating the professional isolation so prevalent in secondary schools, and summative assessment marks are shared. If a student appears to be experiencing difficulty, a case conference is held and a plan is created and enacted. The project is in its third year, with results that show credit accumulation, a prime predictor of graduation, the students are tracking the same as their non-Indigenous counterparts (McMaster, 2017). This is an example of a practice which identifies at-risk students, engages with their parents, assigns a “caring adult,” continuously monitors their progress and intervenes effectively.
Predictors Are Not Determinants
Teacher practice is the single greatest predictor of student success.
- “What teachers are doing in classes with students on a daily basis has the greatest potential to influence the academic outcomes for students, and the more challenged students are in social capital terms, the more true this is,” (Katz and Dack, 2013).
- “Highly effective schools overcome all of the impact of SES and other non-school related factors,” (Schmoker, 2006).
- Highly effective schools and highly effective teachers have almost twice the impact expected over a two year period compared to an average school and an average teacher (Marzano, 2001).
Schools using research to identify, track and implement programs for at-risk students support their achievement, engaging their parents, promoting effective communication among teachers, continuously monitoring and responding to achievement. Predictors of graduation are not determinants. It is high-quality classroom practices and effective school practices correctly target continuous learning and improvement planning process. These are the real determinants of student success.
Because schools are currently engaged in planning for the transition from Grade 8 to Grade 9, consideration of the factors which will set at-risk students up for success will predict their probability of graduating. It is up to us as educators to examine the effectiveness of our practices in supporting all students, especially those practices which support students who are at-risk.
Robert Marzano: What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action, NSCD, 2001,
Kelli Phythian, “Graduates and Continuers: A Focus on Year 5 Secondary Students”,
Unpublished research study, York Region District School Board, 2009
Samuel Zheng, Effects of Students’ Demographic Characteristics, School Attendance,
School Experiences and Previous and Grade 9 Academic Attainment on Their Graduation Outcomes” ,Unpublished research study Toronto District School Board 2017
Samuel Zheng, “Impact of the Success Beyond Limits Program on Participating Toronto
District School Board Students”, Unpublished research study Toronto
District School Board 2015
Samuel Zheng, “2006 Student Census: Correlations Of School Experience With Student
Demographics And Achievement”, Unpublished research study Toronto District School Board 2009
Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack, Intentional Interruption, Corwin, 2013.
Mike Schmoker, Results Now, ASCD, 2006
Jennifer McMaster, “Unpublished project findings”, Keewatin-Patricia School District, 2017
Robert Dunn retired as a Superintendent after 8 years in that role at York Region District School Board. Since his retirement, he has divided his focus between his six grandchildren and consulting with some school districts with a focus on early literacy in First Nations communities, building leadership capacity to use data to improve student achievement and implementing a case management approach to support the achievement of at-risk students.