Time to Rethink 12th Grade

Published nov. 05, 2013

Everyone in education is talking about the Common Core State Standards: Writing curriculum to implement them. Building capacity to teach them. Using technology to help students meet them.

This is all essential work that must be done before states begin testing in 2014 whether students are truly college and career ready, based on the Common Core.


There’s something else we all need to start planning for now: What about the students who will not be deemed college ready?

While the best long-term strategy will be to improve the education of students from grades 9-11 so that more are ready, in the short-term many students will show up in 12th grade who we know are not.

It is time to rethink 12th grade.

Fortunately, some states have started to pay attention to this important issue and are designing interventions to help at-risk students over the bar. These transition curricula typically include a course, online tutorials, or other programs for high school seniors who are otherwise likely to need remedial math, reading, or writing when they enter college.

Seven states and Washington, DC, are implementing transition initiatives, according to a CCRC study. Some schools and districts in 21 additional states are creating their own transition curricula. This means that students won’t be left to figure out how to improve their college readiness on their own.

This is a great start, and these strategies have great potential. But clearly much more work needs to be done to transform the senior year of high school into an effective transition to college for all.

As we know, the students who will struggle most with the Common Core are likely to be the same ones who struggle now to graduate high school and enroll in college. They will be disproportionately low-income and minority youth, often English language learners, whose parents did not attend college themselves.

One lesson we can take from JFF’s work to raise college readiness and success is that acceleration is more motivating than remediation for many low-income and minority youth. We need to make sure that whatever new pathways are put in place to remake 12th grade do not close doors to college and careers for these young people. We must continue to scaffold them to the higher ground of higher education and a family-supporting career. If we give up on them, they will surely give up on themselves.

I’m discussing this topic more on November 12 in DC with my colleague Richard Kazis and CCRC’s Elisabeth Barnett. If you’re a K-12 educator, community college leader, or policymaker, please join us!

For a brief highlighting the November 12 policy event, please click here.

Joel Vargas is vice president of High School Through College programs at Jobs for the Future.

Photograph courtesy of Community College of Balitmore County, 2008