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College & Workforce Readiness

Eradication of Senior Slump Remains Elusive

By Caralee J. Adams — June 11, 2012 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the state for which Mike Hubert works. He is the director of guidance and counseling in the Washington state education department.

Call it the senior slump.

Often, with their most difficult classes and tests behind them, seniors want to cruise to the finish line of spring graduation rather than push to the end, which can make it challenging to keep them engaged.

“Students get burnt out in high school. That last year can be a struggle,” said Robie Cornelious, the director of high school acceleration programs in the Duval County district in Jacksonville, Fla. “Our counselors are in tune with helping students make the best choices, rather than take the easiest route.”

To motivate students to aim high, the 125,000-student system has expanded Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Early College High School, and Cambridge International Exam programs in all its high schools. Nearly half of seniors participate in one of those accelerated offerings. Students are embracing the rigor, according to Ms. Cornelious, and the programs are promoting a college-going culture that is helping increase the district’s graduation rate.

That is just the kind of push some experts say is needed to energize students in the senior year, which has just come to a close for the class of 2012—and the kind of initiative educators promoted a decade ago. But little came of that big talk about revamping the senior year.

“The senior year is something that ebbs and flows. There is a lot of discussion and hand-wringing,” said Stanford University’s Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus in the school of education. “But it is not a reform that has taken hold in a broad way.”

A number of reasons explain why.

The issue never had a clear constituency, said Mr. Kirst, who is also the president of the California board of education. Employers and even many colleges don’t look closely at senior-year grades, and when the No Child Left Behind Act came along a decade ago, it virtually ignored testing after the 10th grade, he said.

“The senior year was bypassed by the standards movement, and that really hurt it a lot,” said Mr. Kirst, who wrote a report in 2000 that recommended schools reclaim the senior year as a time for serious academic engagement and work more closely with colleges to promote a clear pathway beyond high school.

There’s also the timing of the college-admission process. Applications are in before the end of a senior’s first semester, and a growing number of applicants are accepted early, giving many the feeling of a free pass until graduation.

Some states nevertheless have passed laws in support of a more rigorous senior year. In some places, districts are encouraged to offer college-level courses in high school or on nearby community college campuses. Other alternatives include requiring senior research projects, promoting internships, and offering independent study.

It’s not the students who plan to go to selective colleges or pursue careers that are at risk in a lax senior year, Mr. Kirst maintained. The most vulnerable are the vast majority who go to postsecondary programs with open-access policies.

“They know they can get into community colleges,” he said. “Students don’t get the clear message that there are placement exams or that they will need remediation.” If students skip math and science in senior year, they often don’t remember the basics and start out at a disadvantage.

Two promising policies on the horizon may address the senior slump, according to Mr. Kirst. Tests are under development that are expected to align with the Common Core State Standards and gauge college and career readiness in 11th grade. That should reveal to seniors that their final year is their last and only chance to get ready for college, perhaps motivating them to study more, he said.

Also, early-assessment programs in California and elsewhere, in which students voluntarily take exams in high school to see if they are college-ready, can be a signal for students to buckle down.

Seeing the Future

Rather than rest on past achievements, seniors often can find a new level of enthusiasm for studying when they are working ahead toward their college goals. With dual enrollment, students take college-level courses in high school—either in a concurrent program at the high school or on a college campus.

The option allows students to take a wider range of courses and save money by accruing credits tuition-free.

While it can be exciting to take a course on a college campus, the logistics of getting students there can make it more costly, said Adam Lowe, the executive secretary of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, a professional organization that promotes standards and accreditation for concurrent enrollment. So concurrent programs offered in high school classrooms are growing, especially in rural areas, where the distance to a community college can be great.

Nearly 70 percent of the nation’s public high schools offer dual enrollment—college-level courses offered in high school or on college campuses—or concurrent enrollment—college courses offered in high schools.

“It’s a big component of keeping students engaged because they see their future in it,” Mr. Lowe said. “When you start to lose focus, it helps to identify what your next step is going to be and helps you make that transition.”

Iowa is a leader in dual enrollment, with about half of its seniors taking a course for college credit. In 2008, the state passed the Iowa Senior Year Plus Act that strengthens and standardizes options for seniors. One of the law’s best features is a funding mechanism to encourage high schools and colleges to offer dual enrollment that cannot be affected by budget cuts, said Jeremy Varner, a program consultant for the Iowa education department. Schools that offer shared courses get additional weighted funding.

Being challenged in college-level courses kept Chris Tutje, a recent graduate of East High School in Des Moines, engaged his senior year and earned him his highest GPA of high school. He racked up 36 college credits and a nurse-aide certification through a program in partnership with Des Moines Area Community College.

“I plan to go into a health-care career, and this gives me a leg up over other students,” said the 18-year-old, who will major in biology at Grand View University in Des Moines in the fall.

What motivated Mr. Tutje to continue working hard until the end of his senior year was the opportunity to “get a free education while you can,” he said. “I didn’t slack off. I took a full schedule even though I didn’t need to.”

In addition to amassing college credits, Mr. Tutje worked in a hospital and a nursing home. “You were working with the people there,” he said. “You weren’t just watching.” The experience solidified his career interest and gave him greater exposure to the variety of health-care jobs available.

Joni Swanson, the assistant superintendent for instruction at the Geneseo Community Unit School District in Illinois, said investigating new topics in college-level classes can reinvigorate students at risk of a senior slump. If students get credits in high school, they are in a better position to complete a degree, said Ms. Swanson, whose small, rural district works with nearby Black Hawk Community College in Moline.

“It’s a nest-egg effect,” she said. “They’ve gained momentum, and something within themselves says, ‘I can do this.’ ”

Last year, Washington state passed the Launch Year Act, which gives students the opportunity to graduate from high school with the equivalent of a year’s worth of postsecondary credit. The dual-credit courses can be applied toward a certificate, an apprentice program, a technical degree, or an associate or baccalaureate degree.

Mike Hubert, the director of guidance and counseling in the Washington state education department, said that state is in the midst of setting up measures to track how schools are progressing.

“The legislation calls for schools to provide this, … but it does not provide a hammer to catch people if they don’t,” he said. “Because the language is so permissive, the accountability isn’t there initially.” The hope is that schools will offer courses for college credit, Mr. Hubert said, and that seniors will take advantage of the opportunity to reinforce their career interests.

Extending Choice

Since 2002, about a dozen high schools in New Jersey have given students an opportunity to fulfill credit outside of traditional seat time through the state’s Option Two program.

The most popular option, which about 300 students take advantage of annually in Cherry Hill, N.J., is dual-enrollment courses at Camden Community College. Others take classes online, have part-time jobs, or arrange internships with local employers, said Jim Riordan, the director of guidance for the 11,500-student district.

“I believe we should be flexible and provide alternatives,” Mr. Riordan said. “We should not erect roadblocks. We should work with students, if it’s a piece that will keep them engaged.”

The onus is on the student to propose the alternative, and parents must sign off on it. Most options work as long as you don’t “give up the house” and there is academic integrity in the activity, Mr. Riordan said. “When you give them choices, it can be the catch that keeps them moving along.”

Some Cherry Hill seniors are done with classes at 11 a.m. and spend the rest of the day working with students in the nearby elementary school, exploring education as a career possibility. Others have jobs at a mall, which can be a wake-up call to the importance of staying in school and studying to aspire to more, Mr. Riordan said.

Part of Rhode Island’s answer to senioritis is to let students dive into something that interests them through a senior project. The process typically requires a written product and a presentation before a panel of community leaders. Districts have some latitude in how they carry out the requirement, which was enacted in 2003.

“If schools look like they always have, and meanwhile, the world changes all around our students—we are going to lose them,” said state Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist. “We have to keep them challenged and engaged.”

A senior project for a student with an interest in biology was connected to his work with wildlife rehabilitation. Another student was a musician, and he explored the history of drumming.

“It helps students think about what they are going to do next and help them explore career options,” Ms. Gist said. “It helps them see how all the things they have learned are relevant, and how they might use them.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Senior Slump Remains Troubling for Many Educators


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