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New data released this week from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, known as the “nation’s report card,” should raise the alarm for America’s high schools. While scores declined across the board, eighth grade students showed the most stunning drops — underscoring the urgent task ahead for high schools charged with helping students get back on track.

In both math and reading, scores declined to levels unseen in the last two decades. The drops were particularly sharp in math, where just 26 percent of eighth grade students were deemed “proficient.”

Those students are now freshmen in high school. As ninth graders, they are in the midst of a critical transition year, one that research shows plays a powerful role in their ability to succeed in high school and beyond. If high schools don’t act urgently and decisively to provide students with the support they need, the consequences could be felt for years to come.

But while the task facing high schools is daunting, this is no time for hand-wringing. Our decades of experience helping high schools improve give us hope that most schools have within their reach the tools and strategies they need to meet the challenge.

Given the unprecedented level of student need reflected by the NAEP score report, we must rethink how high schools organize, implement and refine their strategies to support students. High schools should be laser-focused on three key things: actionable data, supportive relationships and a collective and evidence-based approach to student support. When these three elements are brought together, they create a student success system.

Student success systems help schools identify and prioritize areas of student need and can alleviate the burden on teachers and school leaders. Independent research has shown that, when done well, student success systems improve teachers’ collaboration with their peers and their use of data while reducing students’ chronic absenteeism and course failure.

In both math and reading, scores declined to levels unseen in the last two decades.

A systemic and intensive focus on data, relationships and evidence-based support can help meet the current challenges. Real-time data helps schools pinpoint where students are struggling; a focus on relationships increases students’ school engagement after two years of pandemic disconnection; and an evidence-based approach supports all students, particularly the large number currently shown to be off-track.

Absenteeism skyrocketed during the pandemic, with more than 70 percent of schools reporting increases in chronic student absenteeism. Absences are a major signal that a student is at risk of not graduating. Yet too often, schools don’t have the systems in place to take action when a student starts missing multiple days of school.

With a student success system in place, however, staff are alerted if a student misses multiple days of school. Teachers or other staff reach out to the student and their family. (Some school districts are using federal relief funds to pay for home visits and direct engagement with missing or struggling students.)

Such a focus on relationships reframes how schools recognize and respond to student needs. Instead of pushing students toward “remediation,” adults get to know them as people and can better identify the supports they need to succeed.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Several surprises in gloomy NAEP report

A high school in New Mexico, for example, coordinates conferences for students who’ve been identified as needing support with the aim of identifying the root causes of their struggles and suggesting solutions for getting them back on track. The conferences, attended by the students, their caregivers, teachers and a support coordinator, could easily feel intimidating and punitive. Yet the school begins each one with a deep dive into the student’s strengths and positive contributions.

This reframing serves teachers, too. Schools shift from a culture of isolation to one of collective support and shared responsibility. When a student is struggling in math, for example, it is an opportunity for a community of educators to find a solution, rather than just one math teacher.

This collective approach is critical given the current level of student need brought on by the pandemic. Current school supports weren’t designed to meet the depth of academic and mental health challenges many students are facing.  

Asking teachers to catch up each student on their own will only get schools so far and will quickly lead to burn out. High schools need strategies to reach large groups of students and strategically tap community resources.

For example, if a school’s ninth graders are lacking basic math skills, educators could schedule extra time to focus on building those skills, leverage tutors from the community and ask other teachers, such as science teachers, to reinforce key math concepts in their own curricula.

The nation’s report card shows that high schools face immense pressure to help a generation of learners overcome the effects of the pandemic. The stakes could not be higher, and business as usual will not suffice.

By prioritizing data and relationships and taking a collective approach to student support, high schools can build systems that meet the current level of need and keep more students on track to graduation and postsecondary success.

Robert Balfanz is the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.

Angela Jerabek is the founder and executive director of the BARR Center (Building Assets, Reducing Risks), a national school improvement organization based in Minneapolis. Both are members of the GRAD Partnership for Student Success.

This story about the NAEP score report was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Robert Balfanz is a research professor at the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University School of Education, and the co-founder of Diplomas Now.

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