Twelfth Grade

One of the main purposes of public education is to help students gain the knowledge and skills that will make them successful in the job market and in life.  Everyone who works in grades pre-K to 12 values these goals, and they work very hard to help the kids they work with achieve their full potential.  Yet all too many students graduate from high school but do not achieve success in the world of work. They think their diploma is a ticket to the middle class, but for most, this is not true.

Instead, a high school diploma is a ticket to post-secondary education, and success in post-secondary education is the ticket to the middle class.  A high school diploma no longer gets you much in terms of vocational success. There are exceptions, but if you seek entry to the middle class, you need a four-year degree, a two-year degree, or even credits or certifications from a community college.

But here is the problem.  When you enter any post-secondary institution, you have to take a series of tests, mainly reading, writing, and math. If you do not pass these tests, you have to take remedial English or remedial math. Students get no credit for taking these courses, but they do have to pay for them. And most students who take remedial classes do not pass them. Many waste their time and their money for years trying to pass.  Needless to say, students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer most and most often from this system.

Solving the Problem

Ideally, the solution to the problem of ensuring successful transitions from high school to college would be to greatly improve the education of all students throughout elementary and secondary school,  so that failing placement tests or freshman courses would be rare.  This could be done by providing proven programs to all students in all grades and subjects (see  A good place to begin, however, would be with twelfth grade.

What if high schools carefully studied the requirements of colleges and community colleges attended by most of their students, and devoted serious time and attention to preparing students to pass the placement tests and to pass the freshman courses?  A program in California called the Expository Reading and Writing Curriculum (ERWC; Fong et al., 2015) did exactly this. They built a 12th grade course intended to ensure the success of students entering the California State University system. A rigorous evaluation found significant positive effects on students’ performance on the placement tests taken by hundreds of thousands of California students in public universities. I heard that Prince George’s County (MD) Public Schools similarly studied the requirements of local universities and community colleges, and created twelfth grade courses that aligned with those requirements. I was told that this was very successful, but was dropped when the grant money supporting it ran out.


Not all students would take such courses. High achievers would not need them, and very low achievers might not benefit from them.  But the large number of students likely to attend college but who are at risk for failing their freshman year could greatly benefit from this bit of hurdle help.

The students in a pre-k to 12 school system do not cease to be our concern when they cross the stage at high school graduation. On average, we have spent more than $150,000 per student by the time they graduate.  Even on the most crass grounds of cost, can we really justify spending so much on a child, only to fail them at the last minute?  It makes no sense.

If it were important at the policy level to ensure the success of many more students as they enter post-secondary education, I have no doubt that researchers and educators could come up with and implement effective and replicable strategies. Students need success at every grade level, but it seems especially appropriate to help those who have met all the requirements of elementary and secondary school, but may fail with their goal in sight. We can, I’m sure, help many, many promising students succeed at this critical juncture.


Fong, A., Finkelstein, N., Jaeger, L., Diaz, R., & Broek, M. (2015). Evaluation of the Expository Reading and Writing Course: Findings from the Investing in Innovation development grant. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Photo credit: Tulane Public Relations [CC BY 2.0 (]

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

6 thoughts on “Twelfth Grade

  1. Once you get priorities in the right order, ‘…will make them successful in a) life and b) the job market’ how do you verify that the entrance exams test for the right capabilities?


  2. If a student gets to 12th grade unable to write a basic paper or do basic math calculations, you have already failed them for 12 years and they aren’t going to do well whether they pass exams or not. Teaching to the test in order to keep them from taking remedial courses they clearly need is not doing anything to help them achieve in the workplace where communication is the #1 most valued skill for employees. College isn’t for everyone.


    1. There are many students who could succeed in college or community college with a modest amount of help. I am not advocating teaching to the test. I am instead advocating for targeted, rigorous instruction to help students who, with help, could succeed. -Bob Slavin


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