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Many Teens Missed Out on Challenging Academics Before the Pandemic. Here’s How We Can Change That.

Many Teens Missed Out on Challenging Academics Before the Pandemic. Here’s How We Can Change That._6113b35f4465d.jpeg
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Many Teens Missed Out on Challenging Academics Before the Pandemic. Here’s How We Can Change That.

Many Teens Missed Out on Challenging Academics Before the Pandemic. Here’s How We Can Change That.

For America’s teenagers, the void of the 2019-2021 school years runs deep. High schoolers missed out on time with friends, prom, graduation, athletics, and — perhaps most painfully — a clear path to their educational future. One year later, students still worry about the long-term consequences of missing out on these exciting years, lost academic scholarships, and disruption to college admissions.

All of this is weighing heavily on them, with 46% of parents noting signs of a new or worsening mental health condition in their teens since the pandemic began. The kids are, in fact, not alright. 

As we look ahead toward another new school year with uncertainty and anxiety, we also have before us a staggering sum of relief aid that provides a once-in-a-generation chance to reimagine education in America. And with education leaders strategizing around the use of nearly $190.5 billion in federal aid from Congress’ Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, it begs the question: What else have students missed out on, even before the pandemic interrupted their pivotal teenage years?

We asked 820 public high school leaders to share what practices they believe contribute to their success in helping students succeed after high school. Forty percent of respondents were recipients of GreatSchools.org’s College Success Award, which recognizes public high schools that excel at preparing students to enroll and persist in college. The remaining 60% represent schools that have not yet received the award.

Leaders at both winning and non-winning schools overwhelmingly cited the importance of strong relationships and a supportive school environment in helping students get to and through college, with many finding innovative ways to engage students and families that they plan to keep doing for years to come.

But when we disaggregated responses from higher- and lower-income schools (defined by the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch), disparities in access to advanced courses — a key predictor of college preparedness — emerged.

While 97% of leaders overall indicated their school offers at least one advanced academic program such as Advanced Placement (AP) or Honors courses, schools serving lower-income students were less likely to do so regardless of their award status. For example, among higher-income schools, 90% of award-winners and 71% of non-winners offer at least one AP class. For lower-income schools, those numbers drop to 75% and 70%, respectively, suggesting a gap in access to rigorous coursework among students from families facing financial hardship.

The ability to take such rigorous classes in high school exposes students to intense academics, a precursor to what they can expect in college. This means that simply increasing access to advanced classes could improve college outcomes among underserved students, who experience an even greater benefit from exposure to these courses than their higher-income peers. The College Board has reported the benefits of taking one AP course, even if the student does not score high enough on the final exam to earn college credit.

As we contemplate what students have missed these past two years, we must also consider what we, as a society, will miss out on if we under-invest in the next generation. It’s been predicted that 70% of jobs will require a postsecondary degree by 2027. Are we adequately preparing all students to heed this call? 

Schools should seize this opportunity to invest ESSER funds in proven practices that give more students exposure to challenging academics. Adding more advanced courses such as AP, Honors, or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes, is an important first step. More importantly, schools should ensure students have equitable, early (9th grade), and broad access to them by alleviating financial concerns over exam fees and automatically enrolling students in rigorous classes.

On the flip side, the risk of doing nothing more to challenge the minds of our high schoolers — especially students of color and those experiencing poverty — is too large to bear. For if we don’t, we may just miss out on the nation’s next great virologist, doctor, teacher, poet, activist, and more.

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