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May 11, 2001


Students who slack off during their senior year of high school-a condition so common in the United States that it has become known as "senior slump" or "senioritis"-are merely playing the hand that's been dealt them, according to a report released jointly today by the Institute for Educational Leadership and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

The report, Overcoming the High School Senior Slump, finds that high school seniors who take a break from tough academic courses are reacting rationally to a K-12 system and a college admissions process that provide few incentives for students to work hard during their senior year.

"In effect, the education standards reform movement has written off the senior year, and so have our colleges and universities," said Michael Kirst, author of the report and professor of education at Stanford University.

For instance, according to the report:

  • The K-12 accountability movement has no strategy for assessment in the senior year. Only New York's statewide K-12 assessment includes subject matter from the senior year; most other state assessments extend only to the 10th grade level.
  • The college admissions calendar encourages students to excel in their sophomore and junior years, but provides no incentives for them to study hard during their senior year.
  • Students who plan to attend college face a "babble" of contradictory assessments and standards that involve high school graduation, college admissions, and college placement. Since the content of K-12 achievement tests differs significantly from the content of college placement tests, many students learn only after enrolling in college that their senior year in high school did not prepare them adequately for college-level work.

Senior slump appears to be unique to the United States, according to the report. In many other countries, students in their senior year of high school must pass crucial final examinations.

"High school seniors in this country are stuck between two educational systems that aren't working with each other," said Michael Usdan, President of the Institute for Educational Leadership, which co-published the report. "This report shows a path out of that morass."

Kirst provides several recommendations to help high schools reclaim the senior year, including:

  • High schools should link the senior curriculum to the general education requirements of the first year of college.
  • K-12 assessments should not be scored simply on a pass-fail basis (because the passing standard in such cases is set so low that almost all students pass). Recognizing various achievement levels stimulates even the best students to study hard.
  • Colleges and universities should set explicit standards for senior-year performance and withdraw admissions offers if those standards are not met.
  • Colleges and universities should align their freshman placement exams with other state assessments and standards.
  • Each state should assign responsibilities for K-16 issues to a single entity in that state.

"There's been plenty of talk about building bridges between K-12 schools and the colleges and universities, but the rhetoric often outruns the reality," said Patrick Callan, President of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, also a co-publisher of the report. "This report offers specific and practical recommendations that can make a real difference in academic performance."

PRESS FORUM: 9:00 a.m., Friday, May 11, in Washington, D.C.

A press forum is scheduled for the release of the report, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 11, 2001, from 9:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. The event, co-sponsored and co-hosted by Patrick Callan and Michael D. Usdan, will feature a panel discussion and question-and-answer session with the author, Michael Kirst, and special guests: Virginia B. Edwards, Editor, Education Week; Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, President, The George Washington University; and Gerald Tirozzi, Executive Director, The National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Overcoming the High School Senior Slump is the latest in a series entitled "PERSPECTIVES IN PUBLIC POLICY: CONNECTING HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS," co-sponsored by the Institute for Educational Leadership and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Other reports in the series, available from the Institute for Educational Leadership, include:

  • Doing Comparatively Well: Why the Public Loves Higher Education and Criticizes K-12, by John Immerwahr (1999).
  • Higher Education and the Schools, by P. Michael Timpane (1999).
  • All One System: A Second Look, by Harold L. Hodgkinson (1999).

The Institute for Educational Leadership-a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, D.C.-works to achieve better results for children and youth. IEL helps individuals and institutions increase their capacity to work together, by: building/supporting a cadre of diverse leaders; strengthening the capacity of education/related systems; and informing the development/implementation of policies. Web site: www.iel.org.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Educationis an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting public policies that enhance Americans' opportunities to pursue and achieve high-quality education and training beyond high school. Web site: www.highereducation.org.


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