From High School to the Future: The Challenge of Senior Year in Chicago Public Schools

Springtime is at hand for America’s senior class—and for many of these graduating seniors, spring means daydreaming about college or a first job. Senioritis anyone? In a recent report, From High School to the Future: The Challenge of Senior Year in Chicago Public Schools, The University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research tackles the question of whether high school students’ entire senior year is one large case of senioritis. In other words, are senior years generally productive or wasted? To answer this question, the researchers analyzed the course-taking patterns of over 50,000 Chicago Public School graduating seniors, between 2003 and 2009.

The study’s key finding is that, for too many students, the senior year is indeed an unproductive and unchallenging academic year—far from a launching pad into college or gainful employment. In their analysis of student transcripts and follow-up interviews with students, the researchers found that many students chose to take easy elective courses that allowed them to “coast to graduation.” The researchers attribute this senior-year mess to the lack of an “organizing framework or common set of expectations” for what a rigorous and productive senior year looks like—for the college- and vocation-bound student alike.

Perhaps the only silver lining of this report is that the researchers found a solid quarter of CPS students engaged in an Advanced Placement (AP) heavy courseload (taking, on average, nearly two AP courses). Yet, even here, there is substantial variation in AP participation across CPS high schools, even among similarly qualified students. Thus, whether a AP-qualified senior experiences a rigorous senior year often depends on what high school he or she attends.

The report’s findings are, of course, from a small slice of American inner-city students; and, yes, it may not be useful to generalize these findings across districts of differing characteristics and size. But, for schools where these findings seem eerily familiar, this report offers fodder for re-thinking what makes a “good” senior year.

SOURCE: Melissa Roderick, Vanessa Coca, Eliza Moeller, and Thomas Kelley-Kemple, From High School to the Future: The Challenge of Senior Year in Chicago Public Schools (Chicago: The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, February 2013).

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