Foundational Research

Special Report: Unlock Success for Struggling Students

Full Report
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The Challenge

Students who start below grade level in 8th grade have just a 1 in 4 chance of catching up by 12th grade. Eighth graders who score significantly below grade level have just a 1 in 10 chance of catching up in reading and a 1 in 30 chance of catching up in math.

Struggling students face considerable and diverse barriers to success. Students struggle with grade-level instruction for a wide range of reasons, but particularly because they are below-proficient readers, English language learners, and/or students with learning gaps.

The Opportunity

Struggling students have an enormous impact on districts’ critical performance indicators like graduation rates, high-stakes exam scores, and chronic absenteeism.

Failing just one core class in 9th grade—or even as early as 6th grade—can lead a student to drop out. 80% of high school dropouts cited their inability to pass Algebra I as a primary reason for leaving school. Reading and language proficiency levels within a school can strongly influence its outcomes on high-stakes exams. Additionally, there is a strong two-way connection between academic performance and chronic absenteeism.

Struggling students’ impact on a district’s performance has implications for its finances. Each dropout can cost a district thousands per year in state and federal funding. In states where funding formulas consider attendance rates, even the smallest districts can lose thousands per day due to chronically absent students. Perhaps most significantly, district property values rise and fall with test scores. Among suburban districts, a 5% increase in test scores corresponds with a 2.1% increase in property values. In states with an A-F school rating system, moving from a B to an A can increase property values by 8.7%.

Four Takeaways to Help Struggling Students Find Grade-Level Success

The challenges in helping struggling students achieve success in grade-level instruction have become increasingly urgent and complex. To meet these challenges, districts and teachers need highly effective, easy-to-implement strategies and resources. This report outlines four takeaways curriculum needs to address to unlock success for struggling students.

  1. Different students have different needs. A wide range of barriers make it challenging for struggling students to access their grade-level instruction. To make it possible, curriculum needs to respond to the unique needs of each student.
  2. Students succeed when learning sticks. Even when struggling students access grade-level material, they can only catch up if they retain what they learn.
  3. Students' day-to-day engagement hinges on positive momentum. Motivation is critical for struggling students to reach grade level. To be motivated to complete any task, they need to believe they can do it.
  4. Students' long-term engagement hinges on credible hope for the future. For struggling students to stay motivated day after day and year after year, they need credible hope for the future.


These takeaways outline a path to help struggling students find success in grade-level instruction. By giving students the precise support they need to access grade-level instruction, helping them retain what they learn, elevating their confidence through momentum-building feedback, and ensuring they believe their work will lead to long-term success, districts can provide their struggling students the learning experience they need to get and stay on track. This can be a challenging, time-consuming task for districts or teachers to accomplish alone, but it can be made far simpler and more efficient by joining forces with a partner committed to and experienced in helping build that path to success for struggling students.