Friday night football games, skip days, prom, applying to colleges . These are typical highlights that make the senior year of high school most memorable. However, while some kick up the effort a notch for this final year, others bask in thoughts of graduation and essentially take the academic year off.
This trend is often referred to as senioritis. Symptoms include severe lack of motivation, excessive desire to party and blow off school work, slipping grades and decreased involvement in school activites. It is often the result of a perceivably relaxed atmosphere following three years of intense pressure.
This senioritis dilemma, as well as budget deficit and college preparatory issues is a topic that are constantly at the top of school districts' agendas. In recent weeks, several suggestions have been made to systematically resolve most of these issues, many of which suggest that the current four-year high school program may not be the best option.
Time Wasted or Wasted Time
The senioritis epidemic has swept through high schools across the nation, and while many school boards discuss courses of action to alleviate this problem, Utah state Senator Chris Buttars proposed a money-saving solution: eliminate senior year. An article on ABC News stated that Buttars feels the year is spent doing nothing but ""playing around"" and that reducing high school to three years instead of the standard four would improve the state's deficit issues. He ultimately concluded that the final year should at least be made optional.
While many students would agree that their high schools provided the option for early graduation, it is controversial as to whether or not this option should be made a requirement.
UW-Madison senior Nicole Lenz looked back on her senior year experience as a time to grow.
""I actually could have graduated early but chose to do all four [years] because I just have the very mentality of when else am I going to do this?"" she said. ""I have all the rest of my life to grow up.""
Other students defend the importance of senior year because it is essential for mental and social development, rather than a year to simply ""fool around.""
UW-Madison freshman Aimee Katz described herself as a hard worker during her senior year of high school because her course load and extracurricular activities required her to do so. She also explained the personal growth that takes place when students are transitioning into adulthood.
""You need senior year. A lot changes ... You have that new position of authority at your school and it's really a year about working hard,"" Katz said. ""A senior starting high school and a freshman starting college, they are only a year apart but are at such different places in their lives.""
Rather than simply pushing students to attend college early, many school districts look to alternative methods for making the final year of high school worthwhile.
Rather than spending a year in gym classes and study halls, schools can encourage Advanced Placement (AP) courses or Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) in order to allow prepared students to ease their way into a college experience without necessarily ending their high school one.
In place of completing her final year and a half at her high school, UW-Madison freshman, Brianah Mader studied abroad the second semester of her junior year and then worked through a PSEO program by taking courses at a local community college. This allowed her to complete high school requirements and earn college credits at the same time.
She agreed that without access to these educational opportunities she would have felt her senior year was a ""waste of time,"" but by taking advantage of the study abroad and PSEO opportunities, she was able to be proactive at preparing herself for a college experience. The accumulation of credits and completion of some general requirements helped Mader as well.
""I was able to get many general requirements out of the way, and courses that would have been a 500-student lecture here I was able to complete in a class with 40 students,"" she said.
These benefits allowed Mader to get a head start exploring fields that she may want to pursue. Rather than eliminating senior year, Mader argued the kind of programs she was involved in should be incentive for what other high schools should be providing.
""If you make it meaningful and give kids the opportunity to work towards something, they'll work harder,"" she said.
Testing Toward a Diploma
Several other states are also considering ways to shorten the high school experience. According to an article in the New York Times, school districts in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Vermont will begin new programs in the fall of 2011 that will allow students to take battery tests following their sophomore year. Upon passing these tests students can receive a diploma and can immediately enroll in college, community college or in preparatory schools for those who have the intention of attending more selective schools. This system would ensure that students are challenged and advance their education at their ability.
However, the idea of standardized testing to determine college preparation is an idea that worries many.
Cross College Advising Services student advisor Adrienne Thunder said, ""I'm really weary of testing. There's only so much it can do so I really hope that there is more to it than that. I'm just really leery of any incentive that involves a test that is going to say something about a student's preparedness.""
A major concern with these exams is that there is a difference between being academically and psychologically prepared. Many question whether exams can accurately measure if a student would be prepared for the social and environmental challenges of college.
Thunder said there is a difference between being academically and psychologically prepared for college.
""For some students they're ready to move on, but for the most part having a senior year is developmentally appropriate,"" Thunder said. ""Even with cognitive development too, the way you think about things changes with time, so you are a lot more able to see that between black and white there is a whole lot of grey. You're cutting off that process by shoving students into it too soon, and in some cases they're just not ready for that.""
Testing issues aside, Thunder supports the idea of a community college or preparatory school as a good route to pursue if students felt ready.
Thunder also works with several transfer students who often come from community colleges. She said these students have a different appreciation for their education, are more confident, and often are more successful their first year.
Lenz, who has worked as a house fellow in Witte Hall for the past two years, said, ""I have seen many residents that are so strong academically but then have issues acclimating to the school and almost ended up dropping out by semester's end because they just weren't ready for it.""
She agreed that starting college earlier without having the developmental opportunity of senior year could elevate this problem.
Working Around the System
A shorter high school experience would obviously lead to fewer classes, and thus, many of the schools considering early graduation options are looking for ways to work around the current graduation requirements, which are based on accumulation of credits. Rather, schools are suggesting that students could work toward a system that allows them to move on upon reaching a designated level of comprehension.
""I definitely don't think credit numbers should be important,"" Mader said. ""Students shouldn't care more about the credits that they are getting than the classes that they're in. Students should go to classes to learn and get to a certain level, not just fulfill the requirements.""
However, Thunder expressed the need to have skills in areas other than the ones of specialization.
""As an academic advisor at a university, my job is to help students gain knowledge all across the university, so specialization in one area excludes a whole plethora of knowledge that you need to have before you graduate,"" Thunder said. ""And relating to jobs, we're in an economy right now where no one knows where it's going, and so the thing that I talk to students about all the time is how multi-skilled can you be before you graduate.""
Rushing the Process
Education psychology professor Howard Everson of the City University of New York said in New York Times article, ""One hope is that this board exam system can prepare students to move on to careers, higher education and technical colleges and the workplace, sooner rather than later.""
One of the less obvious concerns people have about this shortened high school experience is the pressure it would put on students to rush through their education.
""Education is really a process, it is not something that should be speeded up for the sake of being able to say that you did something quickly,"" Katz said. ""It's almost more admirable that you take a longer time.""
Many students, such as Mader, come to college with a semester's worth of credits and are still undecided. As a result, Thunder worries this system will demand that students declare their majors before they are ready and ""make it to med school before they realize they hate it."" Instead, she urges students to gain life experience, difficult feat in such a fast-paced, short amount of time.
Is there one absolute route that could potentially be best for all students?
""These one-size-fits-all solutions, they just don't work,"" Thunder said.
No matter the best route, funding must always come into play.
""In the ideal world everything would be very individualized, however, with money being an issue, that would never be a plausible answer,"" Lenz said. ""However, the idea of letting students who are prepared for it take on extra challenges is a good idea because you don't want anyone who is ready to be held back, but you don't want to push anybody to hard either.""
Whether or not an achievable balance is out there, Katz said the discussion should center around the students' best interest.
""Kids should do what's best for themselves,"" she said. ""When it comes to education, I really feel that you have to be selfish and you have to do what's best for you because it's your life that's in your own hands. You're the only person that this effects.""