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Why Every School District Needs an Early Warning System

Written by
August 2nd, 2018

In the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring the topic of early warning systems and its importance in the school system. This first post tackles the ways in which these tools are designed to advance an equity-based agenda.

Guadalupe Guerrero, superintendent of Portland Public Schools (PPS)—the largest and most diverse school district in the State of Oregon—recently commented that high school graduation rates are in many ways “evident in the students when they enter kindergarten.” Research confirms this astute observation, proving time and again that early intervention and success indicators matter as early as age five.

Guerrero’s assertion makes the case for the use of early warning indicators (EWI) and an early warning system (EWS) in every school district throughout the U.S. The idea behind the use of these tools is simple—if you can identify student issues early on, you can strategically address student needs before struggling students fall through the cracks.

The use of EWI/EWS is based on the belief that all students can excel if they receive appropriate supports. Providing these supports adds value to the educational experience, and can put school districts well on the way to achieving the elusive goal of educational equity.

What Exactly Is EWI/EWS?

Formal EWI/EWS frameworks have been around for several decades. The earliest of early warning systems, dating from the late 1980s, relied on one-on-one interviews with high school dropouts, in the hope of finding common, predictive risk factors that could then be applied to students still attending school. While this method produced modest results, it was limited by its lack of scientific rigor, its labor intensiveness, and its reliance on willing participants.

As the collection of student performance data became more objective and comprehensive over the years, educators were able to more accurately identify indicators that predicted academic success or failure.

In 2011, Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University published the first national assessment of EWI/EWS in a landmark report called On Track for Success.

On Track for Success defines EWS as “a collaborative approach among educators, administrators, parents, and communities to using data effectively to keep students on the pathway to graduation.” Having investigated the results of EWI/EWS as practiced in 16 selected school districts across seven states, the report identifies the traits of a successful EWS:

  • Rapidly identifies at-risk students
  • Rapidly applies interventions targeted to students’ needs
  • Frequently monitors the interventions’ success
  • Rapidly modifies ineffective interventions
  • Shares lessons learned from the interventions

Validating and expanding on these findings, a 2018 report from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research—High School Graduation and College Readiness Indicator Systems: What We Know, What We Need to Know—identifies three primary purposes for EWI/EWS:

  • Identify students who need intervention
  • Focus, guide, and assess school improvement progress
  • Hold schools accountable for student outcomes

Throughout this series of posts, I’ll draw from these reports and other sources to show you how you can use EWI/EWS effectively in your district. As one of the leading providers of student assessment data platforms, our team is committed to helping districts do whatever it takes to ensure all students are college- and career-ready.

I am a firm believer that an equity-based agenda—backed by robust data analytics, innovative technologies, the application of EWI/EWS, and strong leaders willing to make extraordinary changes—is the key to fulfilling the promise of public education.

Which Early Warning Indicators Are The Most Effective?

The first step in creating an EWS is to determine which data points you should use as early warning indicators. Too much data can be overwhelming, so it’s best to keep the core of your EWS as simple as possible. Choose a limited number of indicators proven to predict student outcomes.

Fortunately, research provides many answers. In the early 2000s, investigators from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, and the Philadelphia Education Fund determined that attendance, behavior, and course performance—collectively known as the ABCs—were the most powerful indicators of student outcomes—more powerful than demographics or test scores.

These findings have been validated by numerous other studies, which have come up with specific thresholds for each indicator in most circumstances. According to On Track for Success, the landmark 2011 report by Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, these optimal thresholds are:

  • Attendance: Missing 20 days or being absent 10 percent of school days
  • Behavior: Two or more mild or more serious behavior infractions
  • Course Performance: An inability to read at grade level by the end of third grade; failure in English or math in sixth through ninth grade; a GPA of less than 2.0; two or more failures in ninth grade courses; and failure to earn on-time promotion to the tenth grade.

Obviously, interventions should occur long before children meet these thresholds, but knowing the thresholds provides a pathway for monitoring each data point.

What Other Indicators Should I Consider?

Having core indicators doesn’t mean you can’t test others along the way, but sticking with the basics, especially in the beginning, will prevent your stakeholders from being deluged with data. In addition to the ABCs, most experts agree that the addition of locally relevant indicators may improve the effectiveness of any given EWS.

Status indicators, for example, may be helpful in identifying, and ultimately reversing, patterns of institutional inequity. These include data about race and socio-economic status, as well as other factors such as having a learning disability, parent education levels, homelessness, foster care, and interactions with the justice system.

Similar to status indicators, causal indicators include mental illness in students or parents, substance abuse, a history of bullying or being bullied, low self-esteem, poor social skills, and poor time management skills.

While it’s necessary to understand the key indicators that put students at risk, it can also be useful to understand indicators that lead to student success. Known as protective factors, these indicators can include things like strong attendance, engaged parents, and a high degree of persistence in managing tasks.

One more issue to consider is the use of historical, or longitudinal, data to get a fuller picture of risk factors over time, especially at key transition points such as those between Pre-K and kindergarten, elementary school and middle school, and middle school and high school. Historical data can give you a more comprehensive view of any particular student, and can also help you identify institutionalized patterns in schools and classrooms throughout your district.

Would you like to learn more about using early warning systems to provide students appropriate supports? Read our latest eBook:


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.


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