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Finding a Cure for Senioritis

States and districts are adopting policies to make the final year of high school more rigorous.

The senior year of high school has long been considered a lost year, a time when many students have earned most of their high school credits and have been accepted into college. With few requirements and little pressure, students often slack off in a common affliction known as "senioritis."

The year of slacking off, however, may have negative consequences once students reach college. A 2010 study from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that 75 percent of freshmen entering a two-year college required remedial work in English, math or both. An estimated 60 percent of incoming freshmen in less selective four-year colleges such as state universities required some form of remediation. And while more students are attending college, just over half are taking up to six years due to remediation needs to graduate with bachelor's degrees, which puts a strain on public universities in budget-crunched states, according to national statistics.

David Conley, CEO of the Center for Education Policy at the University of Oregon, says that the lost senior year can actually be detrimental to college success. "We've seen plenty of evidence that students' reading and writing skills erode if they're not learning in their senior year," he says. "This built-in assumption that students can take a year off is a tremendous waste of resources."

Conley says the heart of the problem lies in the K12 systemic structure, because many students are able to finish most of their graduation requirements by the end of their junior year. But faced with the need for college readiness and the growing competition for college, making senior year a capstone year has become a growing trend in high schools across the country.

As of 2008, at least 16 states had developed policies or programs aimed at redesigning the senior year, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Colorado-based organization that works to provide information for effective education policy. The efforts range from dual enrollment and early graduation incentives to mandatory senior projects. The massive budget cuts in public schools in recent years have furthered the need to make every year count. "Schools can't afford to have a lost year," Conley says. He expects that the trend toward making the final year of high school more rigorous will continue to grow. "I think in a few years from now the senior year will be far more challenging—equivalent to the first year of college," Conley says. "I think it will largely be driven by economic reasons, but it will also be good policy because it will get our students more involved and focused."

State and school initiatives aimed at making the senior year more enriching and challenging include dual enrollment, senior projects, increased course loads and early graduation incentives.

Enrolling in College Gets Popular

Dual enrollment programs allow eligible high school students to enroll in college courses that may be applied toward their high school diploma, to a college degree, or both. Depending on the program, the courses can be administered in high school or college classrooms.

Advocates say dual enrollment can help boost graduation rates and reduce the need for remediation in college. Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, believes that dual enrollment has grown in popularity as more schools have realized the need. Today, most states have dual enrollment policies in place, but the financial plans and enrollment requirements differ by state.

Zinth says that it's difficult to determine exactly how many students are taking dual enrollment courses, since many states don't track the numbers. In 2008, she compiled an extensive list of state policies on dual enrollment, which included these facts:

  • Forty-six states had policies governing that districts offer at least one statewide dual enrollment program.
  • Ten states allowed students to enroll full-time in dual enrollment courses.
  • In 22 states, students were required to pay for dual enrollment tuition. Other states offered fee waivers, or the costs were covered by the district, the college, the state department of education, or another state organization.
  • Thirty-eight states provided colleges with the same level of funding for dual enrollment students and traditional students.
  • Thirty-one states provided districts with the same level of funding for dual enrollment students.
  • Twenty-five states required dual enrollment candidates to demonstrate college readiness by earning minimum scores on college placement exams.

Zinth singles out Florida for its extensive efforts to boost dual enrollment. In Florida, fees are waived for students at public institutions, and districts are required to offer some form of dual enrollment. Roughly 37,000 high school students participated in dual enrollment courses in 2011, according to the Florida Department of Education. Mary Henderson, director of dual enrollment at Northwest Florida State College in Niceville, has seen dual enrollment grow by 15 percent each year. Last fall, about 500 students participated in dual enrollment courses.

Henderson believes the numbers have grown since the college began reaching out to two large feeder districts—Okaloosa County School District and Walton County School District­—for dual enrollment. "We've been working hard with our districts to build good relationships," she says. "I think more students are aware of it now and the word is spreading. It's a great opportunity to give high school seniors a head start in college." In addition to a traditional dual enrollment program where students are integrated into regular college classes on campus, Northwest Florida State College also has a special dual enrollment charter school on its campus called Collegiate High School.

Part of the Okaloosa County School District, the school offers sophomores, juniors and seniors the chance to earn an associate of arts degree simultaneously with their high school diploma. The school has consistently scored in the top 0.5 percent in the Florida Accountability System.

A growing number of colleges are offering online dual enrollment courses as an easy and convenient option for students, especially those who may not have transportation to a college campus. California State University, Dominguez Hills, for example, features a Young Scholars Program that allows high school students to earn up to six units of college credit each semester. The courses are broadcast live on cable television and webcast live on the Internet each semester Monday through Thursday from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. Students can interact with the instructor via phone or email and also can view archived videos of the classes on YouTube.

Senior Projects Provide Experience

In an effort to make the senior year more rigorous, many schools require senior projects, papers or presentations. Zinth says that a handful of states have even passed legislation requiring students to complete a senior project in their final year. In Pennsylvania, seniors are required to complete a culminating project to apply what they've learned in their four years of high school. In Idaho, seniors are required to complete a final project that includes a research paper and an oral presentation. Washington also requires a culminating project for graduation, but districts are allowed to determine the criteria.

At New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, Ill., seniors embark on a yearlong service project with Habitat for Humanity. Senior advisor Chris Pearson says the program was started 12 years ago as a way to get students involved in the community and to help them build important life skills.

Each year, the senior class works to raise $100,000 for the materials to help build one house in a nearby county and another in the Philippines. The students hold fundraisers, bake sales and a senior carnival to raise the money. Students can also take up to 42 day trips to the construction site throughout the school year to help with the building process. Over the years, these seniors have helped build 12 houses in Illinois and 12 in the Philippines.

Pearson says the project has the potential to engage students in many different ways. Some students help with the hands-on construction, while others help with fundraising. The project isn't mandatory, but most students participate in some way. "The students are contributing to society, but they're also learning practical life skills, such as how to start a major project and follow through," Pearson says. "The project really seems to resonate with so many students. They carry it with them beyond their senior year."

An Increased Course Load

A growing number of states are increasing their graduation requirements to ensure that seniors are taking a full load of rigorous classes, says Zinth. According to Achieve, a Washington D.C.-based education policy organization, at least 20 states plus the District of Columbia have raised graduation requirements to include four years of rigorous English and math: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

Some states, such as California and Missouri, set minimum graduation requirements but allow districts to increase those requirements. In Missouri, the St. Charles School District Board of Education last fall voted to raise its minimum requirements from 26 credits to 28 credits, according to published reports. The students will earn their two extra credits through elective courses.

While some students slack off in their senior year, many high-achieving students use the precious time to take more Advanced Placement classes to further their success in college. And many districts are encouraging more students to take AP classes in their senior year. This school year, the Bellevue School District in King County, Wash., was one of 367 school districts nationwide named to the AP Honor Roll for its efforts to open AP classes to more students while also maintaining the percentage of students who earn high scores on AP exams. The district has boosted the number of students enrolled in AP classes from 2,553 in 2008 to 2,916 in 2011.

Early Graduation Incentives

While many states push for more courses, a handful of states are establishing incentives to help students graduate early. Missouri State Sen. Scott Rupp has introduced a bill that would reward students with scholarships for graduating early. The bill, which is another example of a state effort, has been circulating through the Missouri legislature this spring. Under the bill, a student who graduates from high school early will be offered a scholarship to attend any public or private institution in Missouri. The amount will vary by school district.

Texas, Arizona and Utah all have scholarships in place for students who graduate early. In Utah, for example, the state will pay up to $1,000 a year for college tuition during what would have been a student's junior and senior years of high school. Last fall, 21 high schools in four states—Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky and Mississippi—began participating in a pilot program designed to have all students ready for community college by the end of their sophomore year.

The program, called Excellence for All, is based on research by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, on countries that routinely outperform the United States on student assessments. As part of the program, students who pass a set of lower division exams at the end of the sophomore year have the option to enroll in a community college or to stay in their high school.

Those who choose to stay in high school can either participate in a career technical program or enroll in rigorous courses designed to prepare them for selective four-year colleges. The new program is funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Zinth says that most states are taking steps to make senior year more demanding than what is currently being offered as a means toward early graduation. "It seems we're definitely seeing a drive in the last decade or so to make senior year that really important, rigorous year," Zinth says. "I think we'll continue to see more of these efforts."

Kelly Puente is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, Calif.