Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Around the country, states and school districts are instituting early warning systems to identify students at risk of not graduating from high school or not being prepared for college-level work when they do. Although school districts begin collecting data on children in kindergarten, Education Week reports, often these early warning systems start in high school.

In North Carolina, the Charlotte-Mecklenberg district has an early warning system that begins in elementary school.

“Officials in the 141,000-student district are relying on a ‘risk-factor scorecard’ to help them spot children who are in jeopardy of becoming dropouts and then deploy resources to help them change course,” Ed Week reports. “Using high-tech data analytics to examine grades, attendance, course failures, declines in grade point average, and disciplinary incidents, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s scorecard system, which was put in place during the 2010-11 school year, predicts even after the first few months of kindergarten which students are at risk. District leaders, principals, and classroom teachers are using the information to make decisions about how to deploy resources all across the district. ’This information is very powerful,’ says Scott Muri, the district’s chief information officer. ‘This helps to inform our decision-making process about children, budget processes, and human resources. Decisions at every level can be impacted by this.’”

Here in Massachusetts, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has established an Early Warning Indicators System that provides districts with an analysis of students at five different risk levels. It is based largely on data collected in 8th grade, with the goal of expanding the system to the elementary grades. Meanwhile, the Department of Early Education and Care is in the process of linking early childhood data to the K-12 longitudinal data system. It plans to assign individual student identifiers (SASID) to children as soon as they enter the early education and care system. EEC is also developing the capacity to identify children with multiple risk factors and use the information to provide targeted resources to parents and early education and care program providers.

Research identifies a number of pieces of data that together identify students at risk of dropping out or low achievement – an “ABC” combination of attendance, behavior and course performance. “On Track for Success,” a recent report from Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, elaborates the ABC risk factors: missing 20 days or 10% of school days, two or more behavior infractions, inability to read at grade level by the end of third grade, failing math or English in grades 6-9, a grade point average of less than 2.0, failing two or more classes in ninth grade, and not being promoted on time to tenth grade.

“In the elementary grades, it is critical for students to master key academic skills that provide the foundation for future learning” the report states. “The emerging evidence indicates that chronic absenteeism in the early grades inhibits this, and hence consistently attending school from kindergarten forward matters. The evidence is also clear that grade-level reading by at least the end of third grade matters. Further, by early adolescence it is critical that students firmly believe that doing well in school is important and that they come to school regularly, and engage positively in their classes. The existing evidence indicates that from the fourth grade on these behaviors begin to shape graduation outcomes.”

The key to a successful early warning system is to identify research-based risk factors, provide teachers and instructional leaders with data on a regular basis, and make sure they know how to interpret the information and use it to help students.

“Schools are kind of on overload when it comes to collecting data and talking about data,” Mindee O’Cummings, a senior research analyst for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, tells Ed Week. “But when they can really apply that knowledge to make a difference, I see a kind of rejuvenation of energy around using data.”