Published: March 16, 2007

Stat of the Week — March 16, 2007

Senioritis: Data Suggest 'Senior Slump'

In announcing panelists for a national commission on the senior year of high school in September 2000, former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley stated: "By the time many high school students reach their senior year, they are ready to check out."

Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education's High School Transcript Study suggest that some seniors may be doing just that. In this week's Stat of the Week, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center looks at data on 12th grade academic performance in the context of the "senior slump." A number of researchers have suggested that some students may put forth less academic effort or face fewer academic challenges in their final year of high school than as underclassmen. This reduction in rigor is at odds with what many policymakers say is a need for more challenging academic preparation that will help seniors make a successful transition to college.

In a report on the high school transcript study, researchers from the federal department of education write that 2005 high school graduates earned better grades but fewer credits, on average, in 12th grade than in grades 9 through 11. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader In 2005, high school graduates had a senior year GPA of 3.05, slightly higher than the 2.96 GPA they attained as underclassmen. Those same students earned an average of 6.4 credits in their senior year, but 6.8 credits as underclassmen. According to the report, the 0.4 credit difference equates to 48 fewer hours of classroom instruction.

The high school transcript study report also notes that students in the high school class of 2005 took a lower number of mathematics and science courses in the senior year than they had as underclassmen, as seen in Table 1 below.

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Because many students were able to complete all required mathematics and science courses by the end of 11th grade, they could move away from these subjects—in which, students often get lower grades—as seniors. Table 2 depicts the lower grades earned by students over the course of their high school careers, broken down by subject area.

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Although there are a number of ideas that have been proposed to improve the transition from secondary to postsecondary education, the senior year remains a vexing issue for educators and policymakers. In a 2001 report on the topic, Stanford University professor Michael W. Kirst states that the "senior slump appears to be the rational response of high school seniors to an education system in which no one claims the content of the senior year as a basis for further education." He argues that the senior year would be more meaningful if secondary and postsecondary education were more closely aligned. For example, 12th grade courses could be designed to connect with courses in the freshman year of college. In addition, Kirst's report says that postsecondary institutions should make senior-year high school mathematics a requirement for college admission. Commentators also note that the college admissions process gives little weight to the senior year allowing students to ease up after receiving acceptance letters.

Governors and other government officials have also taken note of the problems raised by the senior year. When former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner took leadership of the National Governors' Association, he made the senior year a focus of his high school initiative. Contending that the nation's high school seniors too often miss chances to enhance their knowledge and college-readiness, Warner proposed initiatives such as dual-enrollment programs to allow seniors to earn college credits while still enrolled in high school.

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A number of researchers have found that high schools could be more effective if they helped to connect students to the adult world and the larger community through projects or experiences outside the classroom. Along these lines, Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, has suggested having schools that go from grade 6 to grade 10 where students would then go on to other experiences such as apprenticeships or further academic work.

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Quality Counts 2007 looks at state efforts to connect secondary education to postsecondary education and the world of work. For more data on transition and alignment policies, see the Education Counts database.

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