Welcome to 13th Grade!

Several Oregon high schools are offering a fifth year of high school. Every district should consider it.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

I did not enjoy high school. Chances are you did not either. So imagine, somewhere midway through your sophomore year, if your parents and teachers casually informed you that you’d now “get” to attend the 13th grade before leaving. If someone had pulled that crap on me in 1992, I would have set my room on fire.

Turns out, however, the 13th grade is not a half-bad idea when that “super senior” year also counts as a free first year of college—as it does in a few rural and exurban school districts in my home state of Oregon. For the students who participate in this optional fifth year, their transition to postsecondary education comes without tuition, but with substantial support and oversight—not only are they required to get periodic progress reports from every professor, every term, but sometimes the very classes they take are housed on that self-same familiar campus.

The program gets its money—and its legality—from allowing the 13th-graders to exist in a sort of definition limbo: They’ve technically completed high school, but they’re not given diplomas yet, which grants them continuing eligibility for the state’s $6,500-per-student allowance—which, it turns out, is enough money to pay for community college tuition, books and lab fees, and have a substantial chunk of change left over for all that support and oversight. Then once they finish the 13th grade, students get that diploma and they can enter college as sophomores.

The thinking behind the program is that currently, some 50 percent of Oregon residents who enroll in community college don’t even make it through their first year, and that statistic doesn’t account for factors such as class, race, or whether the student is a first-generation collegiate. Meanwhile, in some schools, the 13th-grade program, according to The Oregonian, has a 75 percent success rate. So, for those of us who actually enjoy watching students succeed, the 13th grade is starting to sound less objectionable. (The participating students, for what it’s worth, don’t enjoy having to get the constant progress reports, but do report enjoying their classes.)

But the idea has its detractors as well, and they’ve also got a pretty good case: A small portion of students getting a free year of college paid for by high-school funds does seem unfair in a state with a tragically underfunded school system. “If any of Oregon’s large urban districts were to follow suit, they would spark a run on the K-12 bank,” explains Tim Nesbitt, chair of Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission, in an op-ed that makes a cautious case for the program nonetheless.

Yes, Oregon’s education money problems are real: Back in 1990, before I was old enough to vote, I watched the adults of my state smugly usher in a property tax cap. Education funding plummeted, and it has never recovered. My friends’ children now attend the same high school I did, but their calculus classes have 60 students instead of 30. So, they might ask (justifiably): Why is it acceptable to use—some might say divert—funds to give a select few students the 13th grade?

The question remains as to where the money will come from if more schools decide they want the 13th grade, but I think the program is a good enough idea that it warrants serious consideration in major education budget talks at both the state and national level. Don’t kill me, angst-ridden high schoolers—or parents eager to get them out of the house—but it’s worth considering making the 13th grade standard, not just for students on the vocational, technical, or community college track, but for the four-year-college-bounds as well. The fact is, many American students enter college woefully unprepared. But as our friends overseas demonstrate, the answer may be to prolong secondary education for everyone, or at least make that an option.

In Germany and other European nations, for example, university-bound students attend Gymnasium (or college preparatory school) until the 13th grade, at the end of which they sit for the Abitur, a test not unlike the International Baccalaureate (but perhaps even harder). Since the “Abi” is so tough, by the time European students sit for and pass it, not only are they older than your average big-state-school-bound Minnesotan; they also have the intellectual maturity that can only come from the protracted preparation for something that, quite unlike the SAT and our current No Child Left Behind tests, is truly nuanced and demonstrative of true scholarly inquiry and progress—you know, like work in college is supposed to be.  

If we want our college students to be college-ready, perhaps it is worth exploring the option of creating a new track in American high schools that offers a fifth year of advanced-placement work that is truly, legitimately advanced—advanced enough, for example, so that its credit is good everywhere from Portland Community College to Harvard.

Granted, an American 13th-grade year certainly isn’t for everyone. Some students, college-bound or otherwise, really do have the intellectual and emotional maturity to go out into the world at 17 or 18, and we should not stop them from doing so. A four-year diploma should still be available for those kids—or perhaps even a three-year diploma for students who wish to enter into vocational apprenticeships (again, not unlike they do overseas).

But my decade in the American classroom has brought with it the definitive realization that many of my students, through no fault of their own, are simply too immature to succeed in college. I’d rather see them endure the 13th grade back in high school than continue acting like 13th graders where they are expected to be adults—but afforded neither the training nor the experience to act like them.

Even if an extra year of high school sounds good to you, the question remains, of course: How in the world would we fund it? Again, the answer may lie across the Atlantic. After they sit the Abitur, many European students then enter two years of military or civil service for their countries; they get a modest stipend, but largely what they are doing is “working off” their free or cheap university educations. My German friends have done everything from sorting files at the Social Services office to changing bedpans at a psychiatric hospital. By the time they start university, many European students are about 22, and thus possess both the intellectual maturity the Abitur gave them, and the social maturity of actually living and working in the world. (At 22, many American young people are loosed, wholly unprepared, upon an adult world uninterested in hiring a bunch of kids who’ve never held down a job.) President Obama expanded Americorps a few years ago, and a further expansion could be used for students to effectively subsidize their own 13th-grade years.

Wherever you stand on the political spectrum, unless you are truly delusional, you must admit that the American K-12 system is currently—outside of the richest and most advantaged school districts—underperforming, and could use (though the Silicon Valley jargon makes me cringe) what Oregon’s Nesbitt has called a “creative disruption.” I think this disruption could come in the form of a multi-tracked 13th grade, for students who want a vocational education and those who are university-bound. It is our job as taxpaying adults to provide young people with the structure that allows them to enter the world prepared. And I think—over the hysterical protestations of my 15-year-old self—that another year in that structure, if done right, might be just the thing to help.