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Scholar Prescribes Policies To Treat ‘Senioritis’ in U.S. High Schools

By Debra Viadero — May 16, 2001 3 min read

A report released last week lays out a suggested policy agenda for curing rampant “senioritis” in high schools.

In “Overcoming the Senior Slump: New Education Policies,” the education scholar Michael W. Kirst says the strategy for keeping high school seniors seriously engaged in academic work lies in better coordination between K-12 school systems and colleges and universities.

“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,” writes Mr. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University. His 24-page report was published by the Institute for Educational Leadership and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Both are nonprofit education groups based in Washington.

For More Information

The report can be ordered from the IEL, 1001 Connecticut Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; (202)822-8405; or e-mail:

The report comes as the 29-member National Commission on the High School Senior Year, a group formed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, prepares to issue its final recommendations. (“U.S. Urged To Rethink High School,” Jan. 24, 2001.)

According to Mr. Kirst, students preparing to enter college face a “babel” of contradictory tests, standards, and requirements that involve everything from high school graduation to college admissions and placement.

One example is high school exit exams, most of which have been developed with no advice from college educators. Students typically take those tests in 10th grade, two years before graduation. And the college-entrance exams that students may take a year later reflect little of what actually gets taught in high schools. (“K-12 and College Expectations Often Fail To Mesh,” May 9, 2001.) The unhappy result of such fragmentation, according to the report, is that students may not discover until they reach college that they are unprepared for higher-level academic study.

States could address the problem by assigning responsibility for schooling from kindergarten through college to one policymaking body, Mr. Kirst suggests. One such model can be found in Georgia, where state and regional “P-16" councils set policy for education from preschool to the 16th year of schooling—the senior year of college.

Also, Mr. Kirst says, statewide assessments given to high school students should not be graded on a pass-fail basis, as they often are.

“When these exams are graded pass-fail, the standard for passing is necessarily set low enough that almost all students will earn a passing score,” he writes.

Experiments Suggested

High schools, for their part, can address the tendency toward “senioritis” in a number of ways. The report suggests they can: redesign senior-year courses to be gateways to first-year college courses; impress upon students the importance of college-placement exams; ensure that the internships 12th graders take have a strong academic component; and experiment with granting three-year high school diplomas.

Working together, high schools and colleges can also set common formulas for calculating high school grade point averages and class rankings, Mr. Kirst says.

Colleges can address the problem, he writes, by withdrawing acceptance offers when students perform unacceptably in senior-year courses, and by requiring all students to take entrance exams that require writing samples. The SAT and the ACT—the two most widely used exams—are primarily multiple-choice tests.

The report also calls on colleges and universities to require high school students to take senior-year mathematics in order to be admitted, and to factor scores from state subject-matter exams into their admissions formulas.

“But the first objective,” he concludes, “must involve placing the senior year as a priority on the public agenda.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Scholar Prescribes Policies To Treat ‘Senioritis’ in U.S. High Schools


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