Rethinking 12th Grade: Making the Most of Senior Year to Prepare All Students for Postsecondary Success

Published jun. 27, 2016

Orginally posted on Impatient Optimists, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation blog.

Millions of high school seniors across the country are graduating this spring and celebrating their accomplishments and the beginning of the rest of their lives.

Most—about 68 percent—will enter college immediately in the fall. That’s important, though the number should be even higher, because they are entering a world where most people need a postsecondary credential in order to find a decent job that pays enough to support themselves and their families.

The problem is that, while some of that 68 percent are ready, far too many are not.

A fraction of these high school graduates will never go on to complete college. Many who earn a diploma in May or June will show up on campus in the fall without the skills for college-level work. They’ll take placement tests and be sent to remedial courses in English or math, where too many students get stuck, paying tuition but never making it to credit-bearing courses, and drop out.

While there are many worthwhile efforts to change this picture and improve educational attainment, especially for low-income and first-generation college students, improving the senior year of high school would be one particularly well-targeted and well-timed strategy. As it stands, 12th grade is primarily focused on concluding and rewarding prior years of schooling rather than explicitly preparing students for their future. (Select groups of students who are self-motivated or urged by parents to choose challenging curricula and extracurricular activities are the exception.)

The time is ripe for rethinking—and remaking—the senior year. State-by-state efforts to improve college- and career-ready standards and assessments can sound the alarm schools and students need to hear. Educators soon will know more than ever, based on better 11th-grade math and English assessments, who is capable of college-level work and who is not—early enough to do something about it in 12th grade, well before graduation.

Another reason the moment is right: high schools and colleges across the country have had clear success with innovations to help typically underprepared students make a stronger transition into and through college. These include support structures and instruction, such as those found in early college schools, to prepare students for success in college courses before high school graduation, giving them actual experience with college-level work and providing important postsecondary momentum; and acceleration strategies, created by colleges to help students avoid developmental courses by placing them immediately in college-level courses with co-requisite support classes. Could high schools and colleges significantly improve the transition from high school to college for millions of students by working together to enhance and expand such strategies?

Ready or Not: It’s Time to Rethink the 12th Grade—a research series and initiative by JFF—argues that improving senior year cannot actually happen by K-12 acting alone. While our nation’s secondary and postsecondary systems have a long tradition of independence, it is time now to consider a joint approach—a strategy that brings together high school and college educators where their interests converge and where they come closer than ever to sharing the same students. In many communities, the students graduating from high schools will be many of the same ones entering local broad-access colleges as freshmen just months later, ready or not.

In the series, we ask questions and pose strategies for high schools and colleges to work together to bring these strategies together more coherently and create a “shared transition zone.” Both systems would assume responsibility for college readiness and success, and they would collaborate in key ways to substantially increase the number of youth truly prepared for college and careers.

Based on practices of successful high school-college partnerships, we think a shared transition zone can be achieved through the following principles of action:

Co-Design—Where high schools and colleges together decide on and design courses, curricular pathways, and support systems, as well as professional development opportunities and data platforms, that impact what and how students learn;

Co-Delivery—Where high schools and colleges share and coordinate faculty and staff, facilities, and other resources to carry out the co-designed learning experiences and supports; and

Co-Validation—Where high schools and colleges accept agreed-upon assessments, successful completion of performance tasks and experiences, and other indicators of learning as evidence of proficiency, including for placement in credit-bearing, college-level courses.

Long a lost opportunity in American education, creating a stronger senior year now seems more possible than ever if K-12 systems and colleges can translate their shared interests in and strategies for student success into a shared responsibility.