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Identifying and Helping At-Risk Students: Making Smarter F-Lists and What to Do About Them

As the end of the first semester nears, it is important for educators to identify which students are struggling academically and in need of extra support.

SchooLinks Staff
SchooLinks Staff

Dec 13, 2021

As the end of the first semester nears, it is important for educators to identify which students are struggling academically and in need of extra support before grades are recorded on the student’s permanent record. At this point, there is still an opportunity for the low course average in the teacher’s grade book to improve before it is finalized on the student transcript. The pool of struggling and at-risk students has grown dramatically this year from the impacts of disruption from normal routines, transitions between learning models, gaps in learning and understanding, financial strains for families, and emotional and mental health struggles--especially among adolescents and teens--over the course of the pandemic. Counselors around the country work every day to find ways to proactively help students who may be at risk for not meeting academic benchmarks, but it is incredibly challenging given overwhelming caseloads and lack of available time and resources. 

A common practice for districts and counselors to guide this effort is to create lists of students who are currently at risk for not meeting minimum academic goals. Often referred to as “F-Lists” among practitioners, this collection of student names can be used by counselors and educators to inform how they structure their attention and support as they seek to help students get back on track. Though often seen as a mechanism for compliance within districts, these lists can be used as constructive, targeted lists by counselors to find meaningful and productive ways to channel support to ensure that students do not fall through the proverbial cracks.


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What Indicators Can Be Used In Constructing The List?

Research has shown that there are key indicators that correlate with longer term academic consequences and failure to graduate on time. A landmark study out of the University of Chicago, What Matters for Staying On-Track and Graduating in Chicago Public Schools, found that student attendance, course grades, failures, and the quality of students’ relationships and connections with their immediate support group are all strongly related to the likelihood of graduating on time. Other research has identified frequency of behavior and disciplinary instances as closely linked with staying on-track for secondary school completion. 


With the proven connections between these metrics and high school graduation, it is important to include data from a wider range of success indicators beyond just course grades when compiling a list of students in need of support. In addition to whether students are failing a course, consider including these factors:

  • Attendance Data (for both the school day and specific courses)
  • Behavior and Disciplinary Data
  • Social Emotional Learning or Mental Health and Wellness Data

In making these lists, counselors can consider running reports for students who have moderately concerning data points rather than just those who are already in trouble. Remember, this process is about creating a list of students who need intervention, not just a list of student names. 

What Can Counselors And Educators Do?

Counselors and educators can make a big difference in actualizing a student-centered and restorative approach as they support struggling and at-risk students.

Student Advocacy: Students that are struggling often believe that there is no way to recover low grades, and that the low grades of the past are predictors of their future performance. In short, they give up hope and stop making an effort. Providing students assurance that there is hope, if they make the effort, and clarity on what efforts to make, brings structure to their thinking. Students need to talk through the path to recovery with an adult. The classroom teacher can explicitly define what the most important assignments are, what can be “made up,” and how to improve. Counselors can provide an independent support system by listening and acknowledging the difficult emotions that come with low academic performance, make students aware of before- and after-school tutoring, and, if needed, serve as an intermediary for the student with classroom teachers.

Family Outreach: Counselors can ensure parents are notified and directed on how to assist and support their child. Schools often rely on paper notifications sent home with the student, physical mail, or email to inform parents of student performance. All of these are asynchronous and may not be effective. Having classroom teachers or counselors talk with the parent ensures that they have awareness of the low academic performance and the impact it can have on the student in the long term. Additionally, as part of these conversations, school staff may become aware of individual student or family circumstances impacting the student for which support can be offered by the school. School staff can clarify what tutoring sessions might be available for the student and how to access that help. Surrounding the student with aligned support from the school and family is much more effective than either working alone.

Collaborative Problem-Solving Team: At times it can be helpful to bring together a full team of support to work together to determine if a student’s struggles are rooted in daily attendance or attendance for a particular course, rigid grading practices, or struggles to comprehend the material. This team approach allows for a more holistic understanding of the issues and the most productive path forward. These teams can have representation from administration, counselors, social services, and teachers and often look beyond the academic performance into discipline, attendance, and social challenges the failing student might be experiencing. They can serve as a coordinating body to focus support on student developmental needs, thereby supporting academic success.

Opening the Gates: Teachers of certain courses that are required for graduation are truly gatekeepers to long-term student success. Without passing their course, students will be forever limited in their opportunities. Counselors can help teachers to understand the critical role their course plays in the overall student trajectory and work with a teacher to determine a very clear course of action a student must take to show basic competency to pass the course or standard. This allows the student to keep moving forward in their learning and growth. 

Professional Learning Communities: Teachers care about the quality of their instruction and the performance of their students. Experienced teachers know to review the performance of their current classes to determine what supports can be brought to failing and low performing students and to examine if there are driving factors beyond the student effort. But, teachers should not do this work in isolation from one another.  Schools can structure their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) to provide time for teachers to review student performance after each marking period. Teachers with a common course curriculum (for example Algebra 1 or English 11) should compare both the output of failures and grade distributions and the formula being used to calculate the report card grade. They might consider how much tests, homework, and projects are weighted and reconsider make-up policies. These conversations help to provide equity and cohesion of policies across a school building. And this clarity helps students to be aware of the common expectations and practices. 

Changing The System To Proactively Support All Students

A student-centered culture that prioritizes learning rather than compliance is foundational to both preventing many students from failure and supporting students on an F-list to find ways to learn requisite content and satisfactorily show their understanding. At a district level, school boards and administrators can take steps to consider a systemic and holistic approach to identifying and supporting students who are struggling academically or at risk for dropping out. Districts can benefit from expanding the use of the Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework to address these issues. This process allows educators and counselors to make thoughtful decisions about who is in need of support and what supports would benefit them the most. The data-informed problem-solving and decision-making of this structure means that districts can address student needs at scale, rather than continuously reacting to emerging crises. 

Beyond this, districts can and should review their makeup work and grading policies to ensure that they are restorative rather than punitive and that they reflect the underlying goal of student growth and development. Some districts are moving to a competency-based learning model, which offers promising alternatives to traditional curriculum and grading practices. This approach allows students to demonstrate that they have sufficiently mastered material, rather than being based on the pace at which their mastery has occurred, the quantity of participation, meeting of homework deadlines, or other activities typical of a secondary course gradebook. In California, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified School Districts have recently embraced this approach to ensure teachers are focusing on learning rather than compliance. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, based on learning science research, has shown that this flexible approach to student engagement with content and expression of learning provides a more equitable learning environment for students. 

These emerging practices give hope for the future of supporting student learning and growth. Shifting the policies, approaches, and overall culture to how districts and schools think about student mastery of content, combined with changes to how teaching and learning happen in schools, will result in a proactive system of support. And, far beyond simply ensuring fewer students have failing grades, these changes can work to create a system of schooling in which all students can engage with content they are passionate about, show their learning in ways that connect to their interests and strengths, and truly thrive in a learning community that meets their individual needs.


Creating lists to support students that need extra help requires data to direct those conversations. SchooLinks has the tools to do just that, check it out.

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