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May 2001

Executive Summary
Overcoming the Senior Slump: New Education Policies

by Michael W. Kirst (May 2001)

Policymakers and education leaders, in their efforts to improve public schools, have overlooked a key educational resource: the senior year of high school. Many high school seniors-at a critical point in their intellectual development-view their final months prior to graduation as an opportunity to take less demanding courses and enjoy nonacademic pursuits.

The economic and social consequences of this "senior slump" are considerable. The de-emphasis on academic work in the senior year is reflected in:

  • the rising cost of remediation, as more college freshmen enroll in remedial writing, math, and science classes;
  • the high drop-out rates among those college students who are unprepared for college-level work; and
  • poor academic skills among those high school graduates who move into the workforce or the military.

Senior slump stems in large part from the failure of both the K-12 schools and the colleges and universities to provide incentives for high school seniors to work hard. Indeed, senior slump appears to be the rational response of students to several disjunctures between K-12 and postsecondary education systems, including:

  • a college admissions calendar that provides few incentives for high school seniors to take rigorous academic courses;
  • a lack of coherence and sequencing between the curriculum of the senior year and general education courses in college;
  • a "babble" of contradictory assessments and standards-in which the content of K-12 achievement tests differs significantly from the content of college placement tests; and
  • the universal emphasis-by high school counselors, college recruiters, college admissions and financial aid officers, students and their parents-on access and admission to college, with far less attention to the academic preparation needed to complete a postsecondary certificate or degree.

As a result of these disjunctures, many students face three conflicting standards: high school graduation, college admissions, and college placement.

The recommendations in this report are practical and specifically geared to reclaim the senior year as a time for serious academic work, yet they also reveal a pathway leading from a broader morass: how to increase coordination between the K-12 schools and the colleges and universities. These policy suggestions focus on:

  • strengthening the high school curriculum and linking it to the general education requirements of the first year of college;
  • recognizing various achievement levels on statewide K-12 assessments that meet college or university standards;
  • improving college admissions and placement priorities; and
  • assigning responsibilities for K-16 issues to a single entity in each state.


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