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ByMichael W. Kirst
he senior year in high school has substantial
but underutilized potential for improving student
preparation to enter and succeed in postsecondary
education. Because admissions processes begin early in the
senior year, preparation primarily occurs between grades
eight and 11. Failure to use the senior year to enhance
preparation for success at the postsecondary education
level reflects the deep disjuncture between postsecondary
and K–12 education, and the consequent lack of incentives
for students to work hard academically and prepare for
postsecondary education.
Neither K–12 nor postsecondary education claims the
academic content of the senior year as a basis for further
education. As a result, the senior high school curriculum is
not linked clearly to the first two years of study at a university,
or to a continuous vision of liberal education. Policy-making
for the two education levels takes place in separate orbits that
rarely interact, and the policy focus for K–16 has been more
concerned with access to postsecondary education than with
completion of degrees or programs.
Many students who express interest in college mistakenly
assume that meeting their high school graduation
requirements means they are prepared for college. All types
of students, including the highest performing, talk about the
second semester of the senior year as being a time they have
“earned” to relax and have fun.
Even though about 70 percent of seniors will go from
high school to postsecondary education in 2000, the weak
academic focus in the senior year is one reason why the
percentage that complete a baccalaureate degree is not much
greater than it was in 1950.
Why is the senior year not effective?
Admissions and placement policies are prime examples
of the problems for students at all levels of the high school
achievement spectrum. For instance, community colleges
have open admission, so students rarely are aware of
placement exams or requirements for community college.
Yet placement exams determine whether community college
students can do credit-level work.
Many selective public universities admit by December 1
of the senior year, and rarely even look at senior-year grades.
Consequently, students cut back on academic courses and
work long hours in jobs or internships. Rarely do universities
or colleges withdraw admission if grades fall off drastically
during the senior year.
Because of the substantial increase in early admissions at
our most selective universities, students know early in their
senior year where they will attend university. Many of these
students took Advanced Placement courses in their junior
Fall 2000
The Senior Slump
Making the most of high school preparation
year in order to gain admittance to
a highly selective school, and drop
difficult senior-year courses after
receiving early admission. These high
achieving students have scant need or
motivation to use the senior year for
more academic preparation.
Indeed, many seniors regress in
terms of academic preparation, as
is evidenced by high failure rates
on mathematics placement tests.
More than 60 percent of the students
admitted to the California State
University must take at least one
remedial course. And many high
achievers take the most advanced math courses during their
junior year in high school and then have no math options
in their senior year. A typical pattern for many students
attending less selective four-year institutions or community
colleges is not to take any math in the senior year.
When these same students are confronted with a math
placement exam in the summer after graduation, they
discover that they have forgotten the math needed to avoid
remedial courses at the outset of their postsecondary career.
Students do not realize how important advanced academic
classes taken in the senior year of high school can be for
university graduation, and community colleges send weak
signals about how such courses could improve academic
preparation. Very few states have any assessment system
for the 12th grade (SAT and ACT are not
designed to assess most senior-year learning),
so the current state standards movement is not
designed with the “senior slump” in mind.
Evolution of disjuncture between higher
education and K–12 education
The chasm between higher education and
lower education is in many ways a uniquely
American problem. In England, for example,
the final year of secondary education is crucial
in determining admission to universities, and
to specific departments within universities.
Exams taken at the end of the last year of
secondary education are crucial admissions
The U.S. postsecondary system used to
play a more important role in high schools.
In 1900 the U.S. K–16 systemwas linked somewhat because
the College Board set uniform standards for each academic
subject, and issued a syllabus to help students get ready for
subject-matter examinations. Prior to that, students had to
Many students
mistakenly assume
that meeting
their high school
means they are
prepared for