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COST-CUTTING MASQUERADES AS EDUCATION POLICY: States Propose to Eliminate the Senior Year

"more rigorous alternatives to traditional senior years that merely prolong 'seat-time' by encouraging the development of capstone projects, the development of meaningful internships, and opportunities to take college-level courses."

Facing fiscal crises, some states are developing new education “policies” that are, in reality, merely cloaks for political expediency. Their perversion of some of the most interesting ideas for helping students to get a head start on earning college credits while still in high school – the “early college” high schools that have been promoted by national funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – is likely to have devastating negative consequences for the very students the plans purport to help.

Specifically, Florida and Colorado legislators have introduced proposals to eliminate the senior year. These plans, touted as a way to “provide students with accelerated graduation options,” have emerged as the direct results of budget constraints that have policymakers seeking ways to cut classroom time and reduce required course loads. Part of a cost-cutting movement to get students out the door, they have been denounced by educators and policymakers at all levels.

In Florida, lawmakers have already given approval to a plan that would allow students to graduate from high school with 18 credits rather than the traditional 24. Facing a constitutional requirement to reduce class size, lawmakers saw the proposal as a way to shrink classes and save money. The new graduation plan received so little attention in the state legislature that many high school guidance counselors did not even know of its existence until they were told to inform students of the option in August. In addition to the revised graduation requirements, the legislature also approved additional “virtual schools” that allow students to learn from home and more tax credits for businesses that fund private school vouchers.

Local and federal officials have already begun to criticize the new, lower, graduation standards. The state’s university Board of Governors has denounced the program. The Polk County School Board is considering an amendment that would prevent students who participate in the three-year plan from becoming valedictorian or salutatorian. In Washington, D.C., U.S. Rep. Jim Davis (D-FL) has promised to introduce a bill in Congress requiring states, as a condition for receiving federal education funds, to make American government and history graduation requirements. Currently, the plan requires students to have three social studies credits, but allows students to decide whether to enroll in American history and government classes. A spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has said that the Florida Department of Education will suggest changes next year that will require American history and government as part of the three-credit social studies requirement. He also raised the possibility of increasing the grade-point-average requirement for participants from 2.0 to 3.0.

In Colorado, some state lawmakers have asked top education leaders to consider eliminating 12th-grade entirely and establishing a year of preschool instead. They have said that such an option would better prepare students for college by giving them an early start while saving tax money at the same time. Currently, only 68 percent of Colorado’s high school seniors graduate from high school and only 25 percent are considered college ready, according to Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

These proposals in Florida run directly counter to the recommendations made by a National Commission on the High School Senior Year. Released in October 2001, Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind, called for “more rigorous alternatives to traditional senior years that merely prolong ‘seat-time’ by encouraging the development of capstone projects, the development of meaningful internships, and opportunities to take college-level courses.”

Specifically, the report identified three challenges to improve the senior year of high school:

  • Improve Alignment: Lack of alignment between the curriculum, standards, and assessment systems of K-12 and postsecondary education means that students find themselves poorly prepared for postsecondary education and work. Communication gaps between the systems contribute to inadequately prepared teachers and to unacceptably large numbers of college dropouts.
  • Raise Achievement: In today’s knowledge-based economy, all students will need more than a high school education. Levels of achievement must be improved dramatically to prepare them for the demands of life, work, and further learning.
  • Provide More Rigorous Alternatives: Educators and policymakers need to develop the will and fortitude to rethink the last year of high school and provide demanding options leading to a seamless transition to further education or work.

Susan Frost, the President of the Alliance for Excellent Education, said the high school report was ahead of its time in recommending a new look at the way we organize high schools and a far cry from the recent proposals put forth in Florida and Colorado in dealing with the senior year. “Eliminating the last year of high school in order to free up funds for early education looks like the ‘rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul’ approach that we’ve been trying to get beyond,” she said. “My biggest concern is that the six million students currently reading below ‘basic’ levels will have even less time to catch up to their more prepared peers. They may even need five years to be college ready. Some students are so far ahead that they might complete the basic curriculum by the end of 10th-grade. One size does not fit all.”

Limited quantities of Raising Our Sights: No High School Senior Left Behind are available from the Alliance upon request. Send e-mails


New on the Bookshelf: Political Education by Christopher T. CrossA new book Christopher T. Cross traces the evolution of federal education policy during the last half of the 20th century-from World War II to the present. Cross brings to this book his own experience of 32 years in Washington, D.C., and combines research done in several presidential libraries with interviews of more than 20 people who held key positions during that time.Cross is a senior fellow at the Center for Education Policy and a distinguished senior fellow at the Education Commission of the States. He also serves as a member of the Alliance for Excellent Education’s national advisory board. The book is available from Teachers College Press at:


 Animated snowman lifting black hat with his right arm. The Alliance for Excellent Education wishes you and yours a happy holiday season and a wonderful 2004! The next issue of Straight A’s will be published around the middle of January.



Straight A’s: Public Education Policy and Progress is a biweekly newsletter that focuses on education news and events both in Washington, DC and around the country. The format makes information on federal education policy accessible to everyone from elected officials and policymakers to parents and community leaders. The Alliance for Excellent Education is a nonprofit organization working to make it possible for America’s six million at-risk middle and high school students to achieve high standards and graduate prepared for college and success in life. To receive a free subscription to Straight A’s, visit and add your name to our mailing list.


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