Saturday, October 25, 2014

13th Grade

Twitter brought me a story about Oregon's experiment with a supersenior year. I often use the concept of an optional grade 13 with students when introducing the economic concepts of opportunity costs and marginal analysis. I'm intrigued to see a thought experiment from my economics classroom make its way into public policy, even if the link is coincidental. 

I shared this story with my one class of 12th graders yesterday and they found it amusing. The students with whom I shared it wouldn't be the intended group for that program from Oregon. Oregon is looking to reach students who may not be ready for college. I was discussing it with students who are enrolled in one AP course of many. 

How definite is 12th grade anymore? Senior year has been standardized in terms of the rites of passage that make it up: Homecoming, sitting for their final attempt at the SAT, application deadlines, FAFSA, the Prom. But it's not really standard in terms of the learning and skills the seniors possess. Many of the students I teach are 12-and-a-half or 13th graders in terms of credits and learning. They have a significant amount of AP credit under their belt. Oregon is addressing the reality that a lot of kids are on the 12th grade spot in their educational journey, but have skills and learning that is closer to a 10th grade level. I've seen that true with some populations as well. The lack of standardization is reflected in the varying seat time for our seniors. How many kids in my district, in the one next door, or in Oregon have schedules permitting them to come to school late or leave early rather than sit in a study hall. 

In public school we have free and reduced lunches for needy students. We also have free and reduced schedules for 12th graders who can craft a schedule wisely. Kindergartners, too, given how my district offers only a half-day schedule for that grade. 

I appreciate Oregon's recognition that we have students earning diplomas that don't represent the skills necessary for success at community college (high dropout rates from community college there prompted the program). It's become a mission of public schools to make sure students graduate with a diploma. After all, one's possibilities after graduation really are meager if one doesn't have at least a diploma, and its laudable that school systems work to make it likely they have that degree. However, public school systems have also become much more reluctant to hold a student back at any particular grade and much more committed to preparing students for tests that don't necessarily measure or reward critical thinking. High school diplomas are coming to represent an increasing variety of skills and competencies. 

Despite the misgivings that article shares about how Oregon's scheme might underfund some needy districts, I think Oregon is on to something other school systems should consider. It's fine for students to graduate from high school at different levels of skill and ability. That reality reflects the varying intelligence, motivation, initiative, and discipline of the degree holders. But we've slipped in clearly defining what that degree represents, and Oregon might have a way of acknowledging that reality. 

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