Warning: Your high school students are running out of academic recovery time

So what can administrators do to accelerate the pace of academic recovery for students nearing graduation?

Members of the class of 2023 are facing a challenge not shared by younger students: less time to recover academically before they graduate. Research from Ohio, for instance, shows that the average high school student may have fallen a year behind in math during the pandemic, with students who spent more time learning remotely losing the most ground. District-administered assessments also indicate that students in the higher grades suffered more learning loss than younger children.

Absenteeism is another major concern for older students. Overall, 2.7 times as many students are now at risk of becoming chronically absent compared with before the pandemic, according to a report by the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. While absenteeism among students from high-income families stabilized in late 2021, rates for low-income students worsened despite the return to in-person learning. Based on historical patterns, this wave of chronic absenteeism could translate into an additional 1.7 million to 3.3 million 8th-12th graders dropping out of school, McKinsey warned.

So what can administrators do to accelerate the pace of academic recovery for students nearing graduation? Tutoring is one place to start making an “immediate difference,” says Robin Lake, a researcher and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at Arizona State University. “It’s not just any tutoring,” she says .”It has to be connected to school programs, and it has to be intensive and in very small groups of one to three kids.”

Educators should also dive into their data to zoom in on the students who are struggling the most. One challenge here is that most districts’ data systems track academic progress by school and subgroup, she says. Leaders can build alert systems to quickly identify the kids most at risk of dropping out or graduating without the skills they need. Educators should pay particular attention to students with disabilities who are about to transition out of high school, she says.

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Principals can also review their rosters to identify those students who need prompt intervention. Many school systems are serving these students by offering more intensive and engaging summer programs. To extend the ability of staff to help kids catch up, some districts are encouraging high achievers to enroll in dual-credit courses offered at local community colleges. This can reduce class sizes so teachers can focus more intensively on students who need the most assistance.

Districts should “double-down” on career-connected learning. “I get the sense that students are hungry for relevance in fundamentally new ways,” she says. “Yes, they want to graduate with the skills they need but they also want to know that it matters.”

During the pandemic, community organizations and local businesses stepped up to provide schools with crucial support and give students access to a range of enrichment programs. Schools should leverage these relationships to launch new programs quickly to “engage kids who are slipping away from us,” says Lake. “There are a lot of potential helpers out there. They understand the need, and they’re ready and willing–let’s ask them. School systems can’t do this alone; the problems are too complex. This is the time to think about creating a more permeable and resilient education system. It’s something we needed to work toward pre-pandemic and now it’s just undeniable.”

Data bears out many of Lake’s concerns. After steady increases over the past decade, the graduation rate for Latino high school students dipped 0.7% during the first year of the pandemic, according to a UnidosUS analysis of data from 25 states representing 57% of the student population. College enrollment among Latino students fell further, declining by 4% between 2020 and 2022.

“The encouraging progress Latino students have made makes clear their enormous potential,” UnidosUS President and CEO Janet MurguÁ­a said. “Yet, according to our report, the pandemic not only threatened that progress but also revealed the continuing inequities of an education system that is not serving our students well.”

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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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