In a recent series of articles Idaho Ed News reporter Kevin Richert did a good job of pointing out some of the benefits of the state’s efforts to increase the college enrollment rate of Idaho high school students. He wrote about the successes of high school students, and the addition of support staff to local schools. I would like to shed some light on what Paul Harvey would call “The Rest of the Story.”
While the additional funding from the state has provided benefit for a great many students, I feel the need to shed some light on the downside of the mandate of the college entrance assessments for Idaho students and the Advanced Opportunities Program.
The requirement that all Idaho students take a college entrance exam began with the class of 2013. Since then the SAT has been provided during the school day at no cost to all high school juniors. A few years later the state began providing funding for high school sophomores to take the PSAT. The Legislature currently budgets approximately $1.7M annually to provide these assessments to students. So what exactly are we getting for our money and why are we asking students to miss their college classes in order to take a college entrance exam? Over the past few years I have posed those questions to local school district administrators, local school board members, members of the Idaho State Board of Education, and members of the Senate Education Committee. So far none of them have responded to my inquiry as to evidence of the benefit to the students of Idaho, or if these required assessments have had an increase in the college admissions rate among Idaho students. I urged those that I spoke with to request that the state study this prior to negotiating a new contract with the College Board. It would be nice to know that the time and energy that is required of school staff is worth the cost and effort; not to mention the lost instructional time for the students.
Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, the state provided funding to help pay for additional staff to support the counseling services at area schools. Most, if not all, school districts have used these funds to hire College and Career Advisors or Student Mentors. While it is great to have the additional staff, it does not make up for the added workload that is being created by the new programs being implemented by the state.
There is a significant error in Richert’s reporting that must be corrected. In the articles he referred to the new positions as “counselors” multiple times. The people who are in these new positions are not COUNSELORS. School counselors go through extensive, masters-level training, and must continually update their education in order to maintain their certification. College and Career Advisors or Student Mentors are non-certificated staff and need no formal training. Although many districts require them to have a college degree, that is not a requirement of the state. As one of my colleagues mentioned in a social media post “The difference wouldn’t be so difficult to understand if school counselors were actually doing the job they are trained for and were hired for. Next year Idaho is going to officially evaluate us in the areas we were trained for (ASCA MODEL), yet we only perform those actions a small portion of the time. For the past 20 years, the state has dumped duties and programs on us that occupy 90 percent of our time and leaves little opportunity to perform the duties we’ll be evaluated on, were trained to do AND what the public thinks we do.”
Under the Advanced Opportunities (AO) program, the state provides $4,125 to every student in grades 7 to 12 to use for online courses taken in addition to a full schedule, Dual Credit college courses, and examinations such as Advanced Placement and technical certifications. This has created a huge workload, and most of that falls on the school counselors. Some of this workload is taken on by the College and Career Advisors, but they have a full-time job just trying to keep up with all of the processing of Advanced Opportunities funding requests and providing advising services to the students.
One of the greatest time-consuming aspects of the AO program is the monitoring of those students who choose to take Dual Credit courses. The process is extremely time consuming. As I write this, I have approximately 70 high school seniors who will be starting their spring semester college classes a week after the winter break. Of those, at least 55 of them have yet to provide me with their college schedule even though most of them registered for classes in November and early December. So short of me reviewing each of their schedules individually over the break (assuming I had access to all of their college schedules) or during the week after I return, there is no way for me to confirm that they are in the classes that they need to fulfill all of the high school graduation requirements in time for them to make any necessary changes to their schedules. Additionally, students who take at least one class at the college and others on the high school campus impact the class sizes on campus since their schedules must be adjusted to fit the college courses that they chose to take.
There is other, yet rarely talked about, fallout of students attempting classes for which they are not prepared; low grades and withdrawing from courses. Every semester school counselors meet with a growing number of students and their parents to discuss taking online and/or Dual Credit classes. Sometimes the lure of free money is the primary motivational factor in the family’s decision. Too often those students are not academically prepared for the additional coursework which results in them failing or withdrawing from these courses. Students will end up paying for the same class twice if they don’t retake the failed course during the next semester. Additionally, any Dual Credit course attempted will remain on the student’s college transcript. Failure to maintain the required college GPA will result in the student being placed on academic probation. There is great potential for a high school student to be placed on academic probation at the college before ever finishing high school. Additionally, any previously attempted college course is not eligible for Financial Aid consideration when the student retakes it after graduating from high school. So not only will the student have to take more courses in order to reach full-time status for financial aid, the student will have to pay full price for a college class that probably should have never been attempted in high school.
So far there has been no demonstrated benefit of requiring all high school students to take a college entrance exam. The Advanced Opportunities program is a terrific benefit for some students, but not without a number of potential risks. It has also created a huge workload for many people including those who work for the department of education. It would be good if the people who are making the decisions about the future of the programs would spend more time talking with the people who are tasked with carrying out the mandate in order to make improvements that will benefit all concerned.
Rick Jones is a Rathdrum resident and a counselor at Coeur d’Alene High School.