The Intersection

Redesigning 12th Grade: Creating a Shared Transition Zone Into the First Year of College

April 12, 2016


JFFMost high school graduates (66 percent) go to college right after high school. But for all the efforts schools are making nationally to improve the college readiness of their graduates—tougher state standards, curricula, and assessments—many young people still struggle once they start college.

Just over half of students entering two-year colleges, and one in five entering four-year colleges, start in remedial courses. The figures are even higher for low-income students. Of these, too few finish the remedial courses and start the next gateway course within two years; progressing out of remedial education is a barrier to accessing the rest of the curriculum required for a degree or credential.

While K-12 strives to better prepare students for college, many colleges are trying to help underprepared first-year students get up to speed and get out of developmental education. Efforts to improve remediation include basing course placement on more than just a test score, or admitting more such students into college-level courses while providing co-requisite support classes.

It is ironic that while K-12 and higher education are each investing so much in improving college readiness and success, they do little together to advance this shared goal. The senior year of high school is a good illustration of this disconnect, but also a clear opportunity for working together.

Currently, 12th grade is a kind of limbo: high schools are accountable less for raising measures of academic achievement and more for ensuring that students graduate. Some students take Advanced Placement and college courses as dual enrollees (vestiges of prior policymaker calls to strengthen senior year), but by and large, seniors are not compelled to take college-prep courses or otherwise prepare for what comes next. Overall, senior year seems to celebrate and reward the culmination of compulsory schooling rather than segue purposefully to college and careers.

And this happens while colleges fret over the readiness of incoming students—often the same students who were seniors from proximate school systems a few months earlier.

There are many reasons and ways to strengthen this critical transitional period:

  • The developmental and academic needs of students in 12th grade and the first year of college are quite similar. Given the shared interest of colleges and high schools to see students succeed in college and beyond, they could do more to share responsibility for promoting student success during this critical period.
  • Use information from assessments available through 11th grade to make 12th grade a productive year. New K-12 assessments provide better gauges than ever of proficiencies and gaps in college and career readiness. That information should inform how students spend 12th grade: catching up academically, accelerating into a college or career experience, and/or honing other college- and career-readiness skills.
  • Create a shared transition zone where high schools and colleges share responsibility for student success. To do this, high schools and colleges should co-design, co-deliver, and co-validate experiences that ensure all 12th-graders complete at least one key college gateway course by the end of high school or the first year of college. Completing a gateway course is an important marker of momentum toward earning a postsecondary credential, which is increasingly a prerequisite to career success.

In a series of Jobs for the Future papers, we describe these ideas in more detail, identify how data can be used to guide K-12-college efforts in a shared transition zone, and discuss the array of skills that partnerships will need to develop in order to help students in the zone transition successfully from high school into college.

Though these are not activities that colleges and high schools are typically inclined or incentivized to do together, there are examples of practices that can provide some guidance: early college high schools, dual enrollment programs, 12th grade transition courses, Linked Learning, and accelerated developmental education. While cobbling these together won’t work without a clear strategy for reaching and supporting all students, lessons from their implementation can help point the way to how to comprehensively redesign senior year as a more effective transition into the first year of college.

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