Vandeen Campbell

Ninth grade is a critical year for getting adolescents on a path to secondary and postsecondary success. For underperforming secondary schools and districts looking to turnaround the trajectory of their freshman cohorts, offering students intense support as they transition from 8th to 9th grade is an investment very likely to yield dramatic change in high school graduation rates, immediate college enrollment, and college persistence. The Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies is conducting research related to equity in New Jersey high schools.

The turnaround of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has shown that shifting educator beliefs and practice can result in culture shifts within schools and can create school environments that better support vulnerable students toward success. The finding that freshman year outcomes were more predictive of high school graduation than student race, socioeconomic status (SES), and prior achievement record combined (Allensworth, 2013) has been the basis for nationwide initiatives for schools to improve freshman on-track rates, GPAs, and graduation rates (Pitcher et al., 2016). Recent studies have linked this secondary school momentum to early postsecondary outcomes (Easton, Johnson, & Sartain, 2017).

Yet preliminary analyses of publicly available New Jersey education data suggest high school freshmen across the state do not necessarily have the same freshman year experiences and trajectories are quite different. These differences often fall along racial or socioeconomic lines. We have started our investigation with analyses of trends in high school course-taking patterns across the state over the past five years. Taking advanced courses is significant in affording students an opportunity to prepare for college and career (Horn, Kojaku, & Carroll, 2001). Passing Advanced Placement (AP) exams with a score of three or higher may allow students to earn college credits for those courses upon enrolling in college. Concentrating in career and technical education (CTE) programs of study and earning industry credentials especially in health sciences, information technology, and engineering fields set students up for stronger earnings and on clear pathways to college and postsecondary career training programs (Dougherty, 2018).

Taking college courses while in high school (dual enrollment) can offer students a jumpstart to earning college credit and students are more likely to persist in college (An, 2013). We are finding, however, that while students in some schools are taking advanced courses in math, science, and social studies as early as 8th grade, other students do not have these opportunities. The chances of getting ahead of regular course sequences or taking AP, dual enrollment, or high-leverage career and technical education programs are not the same across all schools. We will be studying the persistent barriers that lead to these differences and yield insight into strategies to overcome them.

Importantly, though, in some schools where one might expect opportunities for advanced course-taking to be unavailable based on historical patterns, these courses are available and course take-up and testing rates are comparable to the rest of the state. We want to carefully study these cases as positive outliers. Understanding the mechanisms through which some schools overcome barriers will be important for the action-oriented statewide dialog and planning we are hoping this study will stimulate among key education stakeholders across NJ.

Examining course-taking patterns is only one aspect of the mechanisms shaping the trajectories of high school freshmen. We have started analyses of various college readiness, school climate, school resources, and school composition indicators. We have also started analyses of differences in key outcomes – high school graduation and college enrollment – and how they are linked to the mechanisms we are studying. Overall, this study will generate an improved empirically-tested understanding of some of the school mechanisms associated with freshman cohorts getting and staying on-track.

Beginning December 2021 through June 2022, we will be issuing a series of reports and research briefs to present findings from this work funded in part by the New Jersey Policy Lab. These will be accompanied by interactive dashboards based on publicly available data which will allow non –researchers to customize the information they get from state databases.



Allensworth, E. M. (2013). The use of ninth grade early warning indicators to improve Chicago schools. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 18(1), 68–83.

An, B. P. (2013). The influence of dual enrollment on academic performance and college readiness: Differences by socioeconomic status. Research in Higher Education, 54(4), 407-432.

Dougherty, S. M. (2018). The effect of career and technical education on human capital accumulation: Causal evidence from Massachusetts. Education Policy and Finance, 3(2), 119–148.

Easton, J. Q., Johnson, E., & Sartain, L. (2017). The predictive power of ninth-grade GPA. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. Retrieved from:

Horn, L., Kojaku, L. K., & Carroll, C. D. (2001). High school academic curriculum and the persistence path through college: Persistence and transfer behavior of undergraduates 3 years after entering 4-year institutions. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from:

Pitcher, M. A., Duncan. S. J., Nagaoka, J., Moeller, E., Dickerson, L., & Beechum, N. O. (2016). A capacity-building model for school improvement. Chicago, IL: Network for College Success.