Graduating High School Students Face Even Greater Uncertainty In the Wake of COVID-19

By Terrell Halaska Dunn, Martha Snyder and Duncan Robb -

As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges, and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

So far, the events of 2020 seem expressly designed to illustrate, in glaring detail, the racism inherent in our public policies. Similar to the devastating health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic being skewed wildly towards low-income people and people of color, the educational impacts of the pandemic also disproportionately affect these communities.  We are only beginning to grapple with the issues facing high school students as their pathways to postsecondary education and into the workforce are being blown up by the pandemic.

During this time of great uncertainty in education, we are also seeing some alarming data emerge. In Houston for example, the fourth largest city in the country, school districts have lost track of thousands of students. Students who should be learning have vanished off districts’ radar screens. Simultaneously, we are seeing evidence that college enrollment rates for high school seniors will drop in 2020. As of May 8th, data provided by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) indicate 3.3% fewer higher school seniors have completed the FAFSA compared to the same time last year.  Additionally, “Thirty-three percent of high school seniors say they are likely to defer or cancel an admission offer that is conditional on attending an all-online college in the fall.”

This pandemic has left the education field with so many urgent questions. Parents and teachers across the country are left wondering what issues students will face as they approach graduation and life after high school. Issues like – how will  high school graduation requirements be demonstrated? Will students be prepared for college courses? How can states, K-12 leaders and postsecondary systems work to remove barriers and support students? How can we help students as they navigate a transition that even under normal circumstances can be nerve-wracking?  Here at HCM Strategists we are working tirelessly to address these issues and help all students during this crisis, especially those most affected.

High School Graduation: In response to the major disruption caused by COVID-19, states had to make decisions for how students will demonstrate high school graduation requirements. Some states effectively gave seniors a pass on specific graduation requirements, while others outlined options for alternative ways to meet the defined criteria. As we move into next year, and intermittent distance learning likely continues, states gain may need to be flexible to ensure graduation requirements are met without penalizing students for factors beyond their control. States must strike the right balance between rigor and flexibility. Additionally, colleges must choose how to respond to all these decisions.

In this disrupted environment, state K-12 and postsecondary leaders should work together to ensure that high school students can meet both their graduation and college admissions requirements. California provides a potential model for this alignment and communication. For example, California State Board of Education, California Department of Education and the higher education segments (University of California System, California State University, California Community Colleges and Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities) are ensuring decisions made by districts to use pass/fail or credit/no-credit course grading will not affect a student’s GPA. They have also determined that these decisions will not impact any other college and university admissions requirements. Another state taking similar action is Washington. Washington’s education systems have shared coordinated information for students to ensure the disruption caused by the pandemic is minimized. This includes ensuring students who complete high school coursework in spring 2020 and receive a “pass” in lieu of a letter grade are not negatively affected in the admission process across Washington’s postsecondary institutions.

Learning and Placement: The major disruption of learning caused by COVID-19 will leave many students less prepared for college coursework, coupled with the possibility that some students’ first college experience will likely be online. Colleges must work to assess student’s readiness and intervene to address gaps. This is not the time to backtrack on a decade of lessons learned from remedial education reforms. Rather, this is an opportunity to accelerate reforms at scale. This means utilizing multiple measures to understand a student’s academic needs, placing them in college-level coursework and providing wrap-around intervention support to address gaps.

For example, the Chancellor of the Virginia Community College System established “Beyond the Pandemic Task Force” to respond to the short and longer-term changes necessary to support students. This includes examining how students are integrated into college-life, providing students with needed services, and offering flexibility on course delivery. This work includes two-phases of recommendations preparing for Fall 2020 and beyond. Among the initial recommendations presented by the task force in May 2020 is the elimination of placement tests. Instead, students will be placed into credit-bearing courses and provided wrap-around supports targeted to students’ needs.

In K-12, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District is weighing expanding its mastery education pilot next year as district and school leaders adjust to differing levels of access to distance learning. Families and communities would be able to select how their school modifies instruction in the fall, including options like more online coursework for older students and year-round schooling.

Addressing these needs will not only be relevant for the class of 2020 but without a return to “normal,” these issues will also impact next year’s class. High schools must stay vigilant about using diagnostic or curriculum-aligned assessments to target learning loss and track the effectiveness of instruction. Learning and assessment will be taking place at least partially online. As a result, school districts across the country have added online connectivity to the long list of services that they provide to prepare students for life.

Understanding and removing student barriers to transition: Even before the pandemic struck, we knew that as many as 1/3 of high school seniors who graduate intending to go on to postsecondary education never make it there. The pandemic will only accelerate this problem.

There is no doubt that even under normal circumstances financial barriers cause significant hurdles for students trying to access postsecondary opportunities. And as a result of COVID-19, family financial situations have deteriorated markedly. And yet, FAFSA completions are down – even for states like Illinois, Louisiana and Texas where FAFSA completion is a requirement for high school graduation. This comes at a time when increasing numbers of students will need financial aid to make postsecondary education possible. This signals a worrisome trend that more students are intending to defer or delay their postsecondary plans. However, without connections to counselors, many students will not have access to the support they need to stay on track with postsecondary plans.

The mere (though not simple enough) task of completing the FAFSA increases the likelihood of enrolling in postsecondary education. Thankfully, some states are adjusting and targeting efforts to help students to complete the FAFSA and access financial aid. As highlighted by NCAN, these efforts range from establishing call centers and virtual counseling appointments to automated “bot” supports that provide digital assistance for students and parents to complete forms.

While the barriers may be more substantial in the face of COVID-19, we can learn from reforms over the past several years. Guided pathways provide an example of holistic reform that is not only focused on academic pathways of a student to complete a postsecondary credential, but also the various “intake” processes that must be navigated before a student ever enters a college classroom (or logs on).

Fortunately, there are several integrated support efforts. These include providing one-stop supports that allow students to navigate admissions, registration and financial aid services more easily. Additionally, schools can offer orientation and other bridge activities, administer career assessment processes and provide advising sessions. As students in 2020 face a more uncertain future than any graduating class in recent history, these supports could be the difference between a student enrolling in college or choosing an alternative path that may never lead back to needed postsecondary training.

Thinking about the challenges that face today’s high school graduates can be overwhelming. Furthermore, these are only some of the issues that must be addressed to ensure the educational system is supporting students through the disruptions brought by 2020.

This crisis can also be an opportunity to accelerate reforms. States and systems can remove barriers that have long existed, especially for students of color and low-income students. It can be an opportunity for K12 and postsecondary to work together to provide a pathway to recovery and long-term economic prosperity for our nation.

The Class of 2020 has lost an opportunity to experience so many memorable moments, and they now enter a summer of uncertainty. They have experienced a historically difficult time, and now our response must also be historic. These students are our future. Let’s not let them down.

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