“We are failing older students.” Are high schoolers running out of time?

The 2023 “State of the American Student" contains reports from various experts on new approaches that "center instruction and support on what students need most."

“We are failing older students”: That’s one assessment of the state of American learning as high-schoolers approaching graduation run out of time to move past the disruptions of the last several years.

Multiple indicators show older students—especially those from historically marginalized groups—are less academically prepared for life after K12, experts at the Center on Reinventing Public Education (also known as CRPE) warn in their second annual “State of the American Student: Fall 2023” report released Wednesday. Here are a few key pieces of evidence:

  • Course failure rates have increased sharply in high school with one large district (Houston) reporting more than 50% of high school students failed at least one class.
  • Reading and math scores are steadily declining on Renaissance Star tests given widely to 10th graders.
  • The Center’s experts are also seeing evidence of rising grade inflation as students’ letter grades are disproportionately higher than their test scores in the same subjects.

“The older the student, the more lingering the impact,” Gene Kerns, chief academic officer of Renaissance, told CRPE. “The high school data is very alarming. If you’re a junior in high school, you only have one more year. There’s a time clock on this.”

Rising and chronic absenteeism show student engagement is also decreasing. In Washington, D.C., chronic absenteeism soared from 29% pre-COVID to 48% in 2021-22. Detroit’s attendance rates fell from 82% in 2018-19 to 68% over the same time period. “Students in schools that closed the longest were more likely to disengage from school, drop out or stop attending school, and to experience anxiety and depression,” the researchers wrote in the report. “However, they were less likely to receive counseling and career support.”

The road ahead may get rockier for several reasons. First, the expiration of ESSER funding and decreasing enrollment will strain districts financially. CRPE is also warning about “system burnout” as administrators and teachers grapple with rising stress, political intrusions and staff shortages. “Although the pandemic has made innovation more imperative than ever, it will be understandably difficult for school leaders trying to keep their heads above water to simultaneously brainstorm new approaches,” CRPE asserts.

As automation and artificial intelligence disrupt the workforce, K12 schools and colleges will have to focus on helping students develop skills, such as empathy, creativity and flexibility “that only humans possess,” CRPE adds.

One in five students, meanwhile, gave their school a D or an F when asked about mental health support, individualized instruction, and excitement about learning, according to a 2023 Gallup poll. At the same time, teachers note much higher rates of stress among young people. “We not only owe (students) restitution for extended school closures and missed proms—we owe them a special sense of urgency, given how little time they have left before transitioning to the next phase of their lives,” the authors of the report write.

Bright spots in the State of the American Student

The “State of the American Student” contains reports from district and other experts on new approaches that “center instruction and support on what students need most.”

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There are positive signs in the growing number of schools that are adopting AI-based curriculums, offering more project-based learning, and expanding dual-enrollment programs. More districts are also providing competency-based education to pregnant, parenting, and underserved students, CRPE notes.

And Colorado and Virginia are among states that are developing plans for every high school student to graduate with an associate’s degree and an industry-recognized credential, which CRPE describes as “part of a deliberate strategy to blur the lines between high school and postsecondary success.”

“However, given the magnitude of the current crisis, we need many more such examples of hope and innovation,” CRPE’s researchers conclude.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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