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

February, 2013
Melissa Roderick, Vanessa Coca, Eliza Moeller, and Thomas Kelley-Kemple
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From High School to the Future: The Challenge of Senior Year in Chicago Public Schools finds there is much work to do to shift the focus of senior year in Chicago from finishing graduation requirements to preparing for college or employment. This report shows that the majority of CPS seniors have schedules dominated by makeup courses and electives and other non-core subject areas, and students themselves describe senior year as unchallenging and easier than previous years.

Over the past several years, “college and career readiness for all,” has become the mantra of education reform in the United States. The challenges of senior year described in this report, however, demonstrate the magnitude of the problems educators face in creating an educational experience that truly prepares students for life after graduation. This report is designed to inform a discussion of how best to reform senior year, as well as to spark a conversation about the important challenges that precede and follow this pivotal period.

The study analyzes the coursetaking patterns of more than 50,000 CPS students in the graduating classes of 2003 to 2009. It looks at the impact of senior year coursetaking on college enrollment and persistence; describes the post-graduation outcomes of CPS graduates with extremely limited access to college; and draws on data from interviews with seniors in three CPS high schools to take an in-depth look at students’ experiences during senior year.

While the study finds that the highest-achieving students in CPS are generally participating in a rigorous senior year, “there seems to be no organizing framework and common set of expectations for students who might be college bound but are not the most highly qualified,” said Thomas Kelley-Kemple, report author and senior quantitative analyst at UChicagoCCSR.

CPS must also grapple with what senior year should look like for a particularly challenging group of students: the roughly 45 percent of CPS graduates who begin senior year off of the trajectory to attend a four-year college with some level of selectivity. In the fall after graduation, the most common outcome for these students was to be neither working nor in school, the report finds.

An accompanying report supplement includes a summary of research findings on very low-performing CPS seniors as well as a roundtable discussion on how high schools can address the needs of these students. The roundtable discussion features Bob Schwartz from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Aarti Dhupelia from Chicago Public Schools, Jacquelyn Lemon from the Network for College Success, and Melissa Roderick from the University of Chicago.

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