University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

Freshman Grades Pack a Punch!

In The View from the OEP on December 15, 2021 at 11:47 am

As students are wrapping up the semester and teachers are assigning grades, we thought it would be a good time to share our new research about how freshman grades are related to student outcomes. You can read more in the full report or the shorter policy brief, but we will give you an overview here.

A lot of chatter has developed around high school GPAs being more indicative of future educational outcomes when compared to ACT or SAT scores. The thought is that GPAs measure more than just the cognitive skills it takes to show a high-test score—they reflect effort over an entire semester and the willingness to persevere. The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research found high school GPAs to be five times stronger at predicting college graduation when compared to ACT scores. Further research found a student’s freshman year to be a pivotal academic point in their careers—freshman GPAs matter to predict a student’s future academic success.

Here at OEP, we conducted a similar study for Arkansas students from 2009-2019. We found freshman GPAs of Arkansas students are very influential even after controlling for student demographic characteristics:

  • A one-point gain in freshman GPA is associated with a six-percentage point increase in the likelihood of graduating high school and
  • A one-point gain in freshman GPA is associated with a 26-percentage point increase in the likelihood of college enrollment.

The thing about freshman GPAs is that they are malleable, and all subsequent high school GPA measures are built upon these first two semesters. Also it is important to understand that grades are subjective!  Individual teachers have wide latitude in the assignment that they give, how much they weight them, and calculating a final grade for a class. We find that freshman GPAs have increased by a half a point overall over the seven years examined, with more substantial increases for some student groups.

Average Freshman GPA by Class and Student Group

As freshman GPAs have increased, so have high school graduation rates with nearly 90% of Arkansas students graduating in four years. In our analytic sample (restricted to first-time freshmen that were still enrolled in twelfth grade) over 96% of the students graduated on time.  Interestingly, although Black students have the lowest freshman GPA, students eligible for Free/Reduced Lunch are the least likely to graduate from high school.

High School Graduation Rates by Class and Student Group

Although nearly 90% of Arkansas students graduate high school, less than half of those that do go on to enroll in college the following year.  In our restricted analytic sample of only those students who graduated high school, only 55% of students enroll in college the following fall. There is substantial variation by student group.

College-Going Rates for High School Graduates, by Class and Student Group

You can read our full paper or policy brief for more details, but these findings should not be ignored by Arkansas administration. Not only do freshman GPAs matter for college enrollment and high school graduation, but being an FRL student in Arkansas is associated with the lowest educational outcomes. Students eligible for Free/ Reduced Lunch have higher freshman GPAs than Black students, but are consistently at the bottom of high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates. To isolate the relationships between student characteristics, freshman GPA, and college-going, we conducted a multivariate regression and present the key findings below.

Multivariate Estimates for College-Going, Class of 2019

Our most important finding reflects how much freshman GPA matters when predicting college enrollment. Raising freshman GPA by one point is associated with a 26 percent increased likelihood of enrolling in college. When we hold freshman GPA constant, we find that Black students have an 11 percentage point greater likelihood of enrolling in college compared to white students. Conversely, FRL eligible students are consistently 15 percentage points less likely to enroll in college as non-FRL students with the same GPA.

So, what can Arkansas leaders do now that we know a student’s freshman year is pivotal in future academic success? The first step is increasing awareness about a student’s freshman year GPA. Informing school districts, teachers, parents and students about the importance of freshman GPA could help lead to better academic outcomes for all students.

Interventions should also be implemented in the state of Arkansas. One research-backed policy is the “no-zero” policy (Grading for Equity, Feldman, 2018). Under this policy, the lowest grade that a student can be assigned is a 50 as the typical 0-100 grading scale is not mathematically fair or an accurate reflection of a student’s learning. Arkansas could also develop and implement a research-driven state-wide early warning indicator system (Consortium on Chicago School Research) that monitors students’ attendance and grades. As the early warning indicator system is implemented, teacher PLC times can be focused on how to reach and help the students who have high absences or lower grades.

To support the long term success of FRL-eligible students, Arkansas teachers and administrators should focus on forming mentor relationships. These students have the highest risk of feeling that they don’t belong, but can develop their potential through a connection with an influential figure at school.

Lastly, college awareness opportunities should be implemented earlier in a student’s high school career. Freshman year is the perfect time for schools to host college and career information sessions for parents, students, and community members to familiarize them with future opportunities for their students. We urge Arkansas leaders and teachers to take action to help freshman students excel while noting the importance and weight of the freshman GPA. Simple measures like enacting a no-zero grading policy and building connections with lower scoring and high-absentee students could help more Arkansas students graduate from high school and enroll in college.

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