Systemic Incentives for High School Senior Slump
Now that the senior year of high school is ending its first half, it is an appropriate time to examine its impact upon college preparation and college completion. The American educational system does little to discourage high school seniors from focusing on matters other than academic work. Rather than using the senior year to complete their secondary education and continue to prepare for postsecondary education, many seniors take less demanding courses and pay less attention to them. Some students use this time for goofing off; others earn money for college or complete nonpaid internships.
For the 70% of students who go on to postsecondary education directly after high school, the primary academic tasks for senior year are, in their view, to graduate on time and to secure admission to college. The first of these tasks may be accomplished by taking the easiest courses that meet the school’s graduation requirements. The second of these tasks usually does not require any effort after the first semester of senior year, since college admissions decisions do not rely on second-semester grades and colleges rarely withdraw an admissions offer to a prospect whose grades drop sharply.
Indeed, the college admissions calendar encourages college-bound students to work hard in their sophomore and junior years—since those grades are reviewed by admissions officers—and provides no incentives for continuing to study hard or take challenging courses in their senior year. It is not unusual for the highest-achieving students to take AP courses in their junior year in order to gain admission to a highly selective college and then drop challenging courses after receiving early admission in the fall of senior year.
The students’ view is, of course, shortsighted. But it is hard for students to see beyond the twin goals of high school graduation and college admission. And in their minds, these goals are not only sufficient but discrete: They do not realize that meeting their high school graduation requirements does not mean that they are prepared for college (ACT, 2000). Nor do they think about using their senior year to prepare for the placement exams that may await them when they enroll in college.
One result is that many students who received good grades in high school spend part of their freshman year in college enrolled in remedial writing, math, and science classes. For example, 56% of the students admitted to the California State University campuses fail a placement test and must take a remedial course; at the more selective University of California campuses, almost a third of freshmen fail the writing exam.
Among those who fail college math placement exams are students who took math courses during their junior year in high school, but took no math their senior year. By the time they arrive on campus, they have forgotten their algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Instead of moving on to college-level work, they must revisit topics they studied in high school. Remediation is a particularly acute problem for low-income students who proceed directly from high school to postsecondary education (ACT, 2000).
The colleges know this—they know how many of their freshmen fail their placement tests, how many are on academic probation, and how many drop out because they are not academically prepared for college-level work. But most colleges, like their applicants, have been more concerned about access to higher education—about admissions—than about academic preparation. For example, most community colleges have an open admissions policy, which fulfills their mandate to provide access. But community colleges send weak signals to high school students about the knowledge and skills they need to acquire in high school in order to succeed in college. Only when these students arrive for orientation or registration do they discover that they will not be allowed to take for-credit courses until they have passed the college’s English and math placement exams.
The fault, of course, does not lie solely with higher education. Part of the problem is that the high schools view their curriculum more as a set of discrete courses than as a coherent program that culminates in the senior year. Seniors continue to accumulate the units needed for graduation with little guidance about the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their next endeavor, be it college or a vocation. Despite the cliché about viewing high school graduation as a commencement, the high schools largely treat the completion of senior year as an end in and of itself.
In addition, the senior year has been left out of the accountability movement in the K-12 schools. New York’s state K-12 assessment includes the senior year; other states stop by the 11th grade and most stop at the 10th grade level. The K-12 assessment movement has no strategy for accountability for the senior year.
From this perspective, senior slump appears to be the rational response of high school seniors to an education system in which no one claims the academic content of the senior year as a basis for further education. Neither the K–12 system nor the postsecondary system provide any incentives for high school seniors to work hard. To understand this institutional disinterest in senior year, we must look at the almost total disjuncture between K–12 education and postsecondary education.