Senior Blues: Who’s Accountable When High School Students Don’t Graduate On-Time or At All?

“Ms. Dukes, “I hear the tear-riddled voice of the student standing before me say, “I didn’t pass my (fill-in-the-blank) class. I’m not graduating.”

NOT graduating? What are you talking about? Your high school graduation is next week! What in the world happened? I can’t help but hide the shock in my voice or the disappointment on my face, nor do I try to. The teacher in me is baffled yet composed but the mother in me is close to tears — just like the student.

This scenario is a far-too-common one and I am sincerely attempting to understand how students — adults in the eyes of the laws of the land, no less — can just realize that they have not fulfilled the requirements to graduate days before graduation. Where’s the accountability for that fact? Can students really be that disconnected from their academic reality to believe that a passing grade in a class or on an exam would simply be given to them and not earned by them? Apparently so.

This phenomenon didn’t just pop up out of nowhere.  To a considerable extent, it is a by-product of the social promotion that is prevalent in many middle schools. Students do little to no work all school year, show up to summer school,  oftentimes STILL don’t do any work, but attend everyday, take  and pass  a less-than-rigorous (and I’m being nice with my verbiage) test that barely covers the breadth and depth of the coursework covered in the student’s sixth, seventh, or eighth-grade year, and — ta-da!!!! — just like that they have advanced to the next grade. What kind of malarkey is that?

I know this is an unconventional stance and one that goes against the grain of much research on the topic (see this, for example, from the Brookings Institute) but I happen to be a proponent for retaining students in their middle school grades who have not met the criteria for promotion to the next grade. Not only does it allow them a fighting chance to authentically prepare for the rigorous academic work that lies ahead with different intervention strategies than those previously applied, but it also gives them a much needed wake-up call at a stage in their academic and social development where the stakes of getting left back are not so high. Getting left back in the sixth, seventh, or eighth-grade, as scenic watershed years for a plethora of students (myself included), is a much different wake-up call than getting held-back in the twelfth grade. The stakes just aren’t as high.

I’ve seen time and time again when I’ve recommended that a student in the eighth grade, for example, be retained because he wasn’t prepared for high school. In one particular case that comes to mind, my recommendations were ignored, and that student today has now dropped out of high school because he entered high school with a faulty mindset that he would just pass his classes. I just  heard from this student the other day and, unfortunately, what I saw for his future if we, his teachers, didn’t intervene at that critical juncture of his transition from middle school to high school, came to pass. He has dropped out of high school and is now “making money” — whatever that means (his words, not mine).

Do you know what it feels like to be in the tenth or eleventh grade and only earn four credits AND fail a number of Regents exams? I don’t personally but through observing my students who have been in this predicament, I’ve gathered my own research and have come to the conclusion that it is traumatic — way more traumatic than what the research says about being left back.

Please don’t misconstrue my position. Retention is not a quick-fix answer. Nothing in education ever is a quick-fix answer, if we’re being honest. The formula for students who neglect to stay on top of their graduation requirements (passing classes AND passing Regents exams) is a complex one and one in which many share in the accountability. I notice that by the time a student hits high school, a lot of parents become hands-off and take a back seat in monitoring their child’s progress. Attendance at  parent-teacher conferences dips and students are prematurely left to do what it takes to graduate. They are still kids! They need guidance, and not just from their guidance counselor or teachers. Parents play a vital role in keeping their child on track. For both my children, the only parent-teacher conferences I ever missed in their entire academic careers were their ones in the twelfth grade and, although both times the circumstances were beyond my control, I still feel messed-up about it and I made sure to email their teachers to let them know that I’m still here and I’m still very much involved.

As a current middle school teacher who is yet again blessed to work with an amazing team of teachers in my grade-level, I see how doing team inquiry work throughout the school year, as well as engaging in ongoing parent outreach to keep them abreast of those students most at risk for retention while there’s still time to do something about it, is a model that perhaps more high schools should consider.

Most of all, though, it boils down to students being held accountable for their own actions. Students: You can’t expect to not do your class or homework, to come to class late (if at all), fail your exams, not do assigned projects, fall asleep in class, or any combination of the above, and then in the same breath expect to graduate from high school. That’s not how it works and if that’s what you think or that’s what you’ve been doing, you need to get yourself in order before it’s too late and you find yourself having to break the news to your loved ones and yourself that next week, they’ll be no celebration to attend because you are not graduating! That’s never a conversation any of you want to have and it’s one that you never have to have if you consistently put in the work — not scrambling to make up a semester’s worth of work in a day!  

Claim all the benefits and opportunities that graduating from high school affords now — before it’s too late.

What do you think?

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