Key Questions

1. Is there evidence that changes in Freshman OnTrack rates are associated with improvements in the proportion of students who are on-track in tenth grade, on-track in eleventh grade and, ultimately, who graduate on time?

2. To what extent do improvements in Freshman OnTrack rates have the same or different effects on graduation for students with different levels of entering achievement?

3. To what extent were increases in Freshman OnTrack rates driven by schools making marginal improvements to student performance (e.g., shifting students from Fs to Ds, focusing on students with only one semester F in a core course)?

4. Is there evidence that high schools face a tradeoff between improving Freshman OnTrack and graduation rates and raising achievement test scores?


Chicago Public Schools (CPS) began using the Freshman OnTrack indicator when, early in his administration, CEO Arne Duncan included the percentage of ninth-graders on-track for graduation in the high school accountability system. In this paper, we focus on evaluating the impact of improvements in Freshman OnTrack rates in a set of schools that showed significant improvement during the first two years of the Graduation Pathways initiative, a unit of CPS, which pioneered a data-driven approach to monitoring ninth-grade performance, beginning with flagging students who might be at risk for failing even before the school year started, identifying attendance problems, flagging poor course performance each quarter, and finally, providing timely guidance about which students could best benefit from limited credit recovery slots available.

Key Findings

  • The Freshman OnTrack initiative reframed the problem of school dropout from an outcome that is outside the control of educators to one that can be managed through effective school-based strategies.
  • Ninth grade is a pivotal year that provides a unique intervention point to prevent school dropout.
  • The Freshman OnTrack initiative in Chicago provides an important case study of the potential use of data to build the capacity of high school educators to manage complex problems and create systems of continuous improvement.

A working paper is a work in progress intended to contribute to current conversations in research, policy, and practice in a timely manner. The findings, interpretations, and conclusions expressed herein are preliminary thoughts solely of the author(s) and shared with permission of the author(s). These preliminary findings, interpretations, and conclusions may change upon further interrogation and collaboration with UChicago Consortium colleagues and other stakeholders in our work.