RISE’s Foundational Conditions for Grade 9 Success: On-Track Definition

Grade 9 SuccessRISE by 5 Strategies

Our work in supporting a growing number of Grade 9 teams over the past several years has afforded us an immense learning opportunity as an organization. We believe ever more strongly that there are specific policies, structures, and systems that can support a school’s freshman success efforts. Over the next several months, we want to bring more context to why we believe each of these five enabling conditions are vital to implementing an effective Grade 9 success program and illustrate what these conditions look like in practice. First up on our list is the establishment of an On-Track Definition. 

As RISE partners are well aware, our work is inspired by efforts over the past two decades in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to increase graduation rates and strengthen postsecondary readiness through a focus on freshman success. Perhaps most foundational among Chicago’s contributions is the research-backed project of defining “on-track” for CPS 9th graders. The Make or Break Year explores how Freshman On-Track evolved within CPS and underscores that the true intent of the “on-track” measure was to be used “to help pinpoint the factors that led to dropout” – rather than as an accountability measure (p. 169). The focus developing an on-track metric needs to be placed on creating actionable and accurate data to pinpoint supports, and not on using it for accountability. (RISE offers a three-session book club that guides teams to explore this text in more detail.) 

As Grade 9 on-track has evolved as a focus area and spread across the country, definitions of on-track and the uses of the metric have become more varied. There are a variety of context-specific factors that inform the process of clearly defining what it means to be on-track. Connecticut includes Grade 9 on-track (students earning 6+ credits in Grade 9) in its state accountability system, and even within RISE’s core network of nine schools in Connecticut, there are specific nuances to how each school defines on-track; the variation only expands when you look outside of Connecticut. Regardless of the context, though, it is vital that all stakeholders, inclusive of students, educators, and families, have a shared understanding of what the requirements are for being on-track. This means that all stakeholders should be able to answer, for any student and at any point during the school year, with their current course performance, does the student have enough credits to be promoted to Grade 10? 

A clear on-track definition allows educators to spotlight students who are at risk of not being promoted to Grade 10 and organize staff and other resources thoughtfully to work with them. A clear on-track definition communicates to students and families how they are doing and, through building a shared language,  supports caregivers in understanding the importance of Grade 9. And, for the whole school community, an on-track definition helps build a collective efficacy that is focused on students’ future readiness. 

The research backing why Grade 9 is a pivotal year for students’ prospects of graduating high school emphasizes the importance of passing ninth-grade classes. Students passing their ninth grade courses are almost four times more likely to graduate than off-track students. Importantly, an on-track definition serves as a floor, not a ceiling, and at RISE, we believe it is important to differentiate between on-track for promotion to Grade 10 and on-track for postsecondary readiness. For the former, we’ve found the most success in keeping it simple (e.g., earning 6 credits, perhaps including 1-2 required classes). The research base supports this, and a simpler on-track definition is easier to organize around. (A more elevated definition focused on postsecondary readiness might layer in factors like attendance and/or earning grades beyond passing (e.g., Bs or better)). Still, RISE’s research shows  that being on-track is not necessarily a binary measure. Understanding some nuance in the on-track metric can make it more actionable for educators, for example by focusing on students who are on-track but are chronically absent. This research helped us strengthen our ability to pinpoint interventions appropriately and tailor our strategies to better serve all students, including the most vulnerable.

Intentionally building staff awareness of the on-track metric – both the criteria and the importance of the freshman transition – are key elements of this condition. We encourage teams to engage with research reports from The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, such as Free to Fail or On-Track to College, and The Predictive Power of Ninth-Grade GPA. It is also important that student information systems reflect promotion requirements, an aspect that will be explored in a future post about the foundational condition of Data Visibility.

The presence of an on-track definition can invite an “On-Track” culture. It is equally important for schools to define the student behaviors that build on-track culture. A poster like the one here can be incredibly helpful in simplifying the message so that it is easily accessible. This generic, habits-focused poster allows for an early entry point for all schools into the process of promoting on-track as an indicator of success. As your school aligns on a more specific definition of on-track, more detailed messaging about precise criteria can allow for students and families to clearly understand what it means to be on-track at your school. Additionally, practices like on-track conferences can help build student awareness of the meaning of on-track and ensure that students know their on-track status throughout the year. A strong on-track definition isn’t just on computer screens or in year-end reports but, rather, affects the daily life of the school and informs how students and educators work together toward success.


Our Grade 9 Summer Symposium explains why we care so much about Grade 9 and underscores why it is the “make-or-break year” for students. We will be hosting our second annual Symposium in June 2023, and would love for you or members of your team to attend! Complete this form to make sure you are notified when registration opens. In the meantime, we invite you to connect with us on Twitter and LinkedIn to stay up-to-date on RISE news and events.