IDRA Study Explores Counselor Concerns in Supporting Students for College Preparation
• Hector Bojorquez • IDRA Newsletter • October 2018 •
School counselors play a vital role in the lives of our students. They can hold great sway in placing students on academic paths that lead to prosperous futures in an uncertain and often chaotic world. A counselor’s advice is more important than ever before as the job market is so unpredictable due to economic upheavals and technological advances. In Texas, their work has been affected by changes in the state’s graduation requirements that went into effect in 2013-14 as determined in House Bill 5.
Called the “Foundation High School Program” the new graduation requirements are less rigorous for mathematics, science and social studies and include a new requirement for career readiness, called “endorsements.” How these changes are implemented and what this implies for students, families and schools can have a deep impact on post-secondary preparation, access and completion, particularly for students underrepresented in degree attainment.
Counselors must be equipped to help students know what they need to do to be prepared for college and career.
As we reported in May, IDRA conducted a study, with funding from the Greater Texas Foundation, of HB5 implementation. We examined how educators, families and students in school districts are navigating implementation of the new high school graduation requirements and what it means for post-secondary preparation.
Part of our study looked at how counselors specifically are navigating the new high school graduation requirements under HB5. We conducted a series of group interviews of counselors, students and parents in five school districts across Texas. In selecting the sites, IDRA considered various academic measures and geographic distribution (rural, urban, border). We were particularly interested in school districts that serve largely low-income, minority-majority student populations and that demonstrate positive academic outcomes, such as higher than the state’s four-year graduation rates, college-enrollment rates post-graduation, or enrollment in advanced courses. In four of the five districts, Hispanics comprise more than half of the student population.
Overall, counselors indicated they were not confident that they were providing effective support for students. Schools and districts have provided materials and training to help counselors advise students regarding personal graduation plans, provide information about graduation options, and explain endorsements, but counselors are frequently overwhelmed. Some stated:
“Endorsements are confusing and do not relate to higher ed.”
“Some students are eager to take more AP classes… but want an endorsement [and] are forced to take electives that have no advanced weight to them, i.e., child development or lifetime nutrition.”
“The Class of 2018 is the first class that must graduate under HB5. I would appreciate an updated professional training entailing the graduation plans and endorsements. Perhaps if enough counselors asked, a training could be provided… maybe?”
Counselors depicted the implementation of HB5 as taking place in an environment where they, their school, and/or their school district do not have the ability, skills and expertise to execute and accomplish the requirements in HB5. They discussed the different ways they felt unprepared to implement HB5 requirements.
From the counselors’ perspective, their district and region are not able to answer all of the specific questions they have about HB5, they do not have the technology necessary to effectively keep track of students’ personal graduation plans, and they need more training on HB5.
Specifically, one counselor described a situation with a student that, prior to HB5, was in special education but nevertheless wanted to graduate with the more rigorous “distinguished level of achievement” designation. The counselor explained how she was able to assist the student in meeting his goal but then concluded, “Though with House Bill 5, I don’t know, because we don’t know the requirements yet.”
Similarly, another counselor said: “It’s easier to advocate for somebody when you have all the knowledge and experience and confidence, to us [HB5] is something we’re learning… if we don’t then we’re going to be causing a disservice… to the student or to the parent.”
IDRA identified a cluster of themes throughout the interviews. These included lack of information; communication challenges between students, counselors and parents; professional development and capacity-building fault lines; perspectives around college aspirations; and professional anxieties around implementing new and complex graduating plans.
On the surface, these themes initially spoke to implementation issues. For example, students often were unaware or confused about HB5 language but understood the nuances behind their graduations plans. Parents felt they had little authentic communication from the school about the new law.
Counselors universally felt that they did not have enough staff capacity to satisfy some of the law’s requirements, such as individualized meetings with parents. These are important concerns about how any new policy is implemented. But, as participants spoke about their experiences and IDRA analyzed their responses, deeper issues concerning the new policy itself arose.
Most issues, whether related to implementation, communication or capacity, were ultimately linked to three major concerns about HB5 that all groups appeared to be grappling with in their own spheres. While each group shared their experiences from different perspectives (student, counselor and parent), the following concerns appear to be at the root of the themes discussed by participants.
- Most participants expressed that there was a lack of clarity concerning the purpose of endorsements.
- Participants were concerned about the what role, if any, endorsements play in life after high school.
- Participants questioned what effects endorsement’s lack of “real life” purpose will have on student’s college-going and career futures.
As we reviewed discussions and observations from all participants concerning their experiences around HB5 implementation, the frustrations all stakeholders shared appear to be based on an explicit question: What purpose do endorsements serve?
Our analysis led us to the conclusion that endorsements, as a requirement, as a practice or as an educational construct are perceived as problematic, at best, regardless of perspective because endorsements have no counterpart, social construct or perceived value in real life, college or careers.
Thus, most counselors were concerned that a focus on endorsements by schools may derail students’ college plans because endorsements often are inaccurately presented as equally important to college preparatory coursework. Counselors reported having to consistently emphasize coursework over endorsements.
Since HB5’s new graduation requirements became law, a new accountability rating system has been put in place in Texas using A-F grades. One of the most significant changes includes measures for “college and career readiness” that comprise 40 percent of a district’s score. While the new system is controversial due to punitive measures and over-reliance on testing that is high-stakes, including college and career readiness as a significant accountability component could signal a step in an unfortunate and detrimental direction.
IDRA’s HB5 research is pointing to the possibility that endorsements, with or without clarification, may by problematic in the pursuit of higher education for all students. Our study outlined some key policy recommendations. For example, the counselor-to-student ratio needs to be improved so that more counselors can help students explore college options, serve as mentors to smaller groups of students and communicate with parents. Student respondents in one mid-size district described just such a situation where counselors were all aware of student’s grades, career goals and even homework assignments. This is not an impossible goal if the state is willing to fund counselors at an appropriate level rather than changing graduation requirements so that fewer students are seen as “needing” college counseling.
Education matters: on nearly every measure of economic well-being and career attainment, young college graduates consistently outperform their less educated peers (IDRA, 2016). For parents and educational stakeholders, the growing concern is that the new foundation high school program has the potential to prevent low-income, minority students from being college-ready or else to track them solely into vocational occupations. And counselors must be equipped, instead, to help students know what they need to do to be prepared for college and career.
Bojorquez, H. (May 2018). “Rural Districts Take a 24 Percent Hit in Algebra II Enrollment – IDRA Ready Texas Study Examines Texas HB5 Graduation Requirements,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
Bojorquez, H. (May 2018). Ready Texas – A Study of the Implementation of HB5 in Texas and Implications for College Readiness (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
IDRA (2016). Ready Texas: Stakeholder Convening: Proceedings Report (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]