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Listening to Students: A Conversation about the Data They Need to Make Post–High School Decisions

Listening to Students: A Conversation about the Data They Need to Make Post–High School Decisions

The pandemic has affected how students make decisions about their futures—especially at the crucial junctures between high school, postsecondary education, and the workforce. But what data do students want and need to ensure they can make decisions about their pathways after high school? 

DQC’s recent public opinion polling revealed that students are in the dark about their own learning. Less than half of students report getting any information from their school about whether they’re meeting grade-level expectations, if they’re on track to graduate from high school, or how much academic progress they’ve made this year. 

To develop this poll, DQC teamed up with the Kentucky Student Voice Team, and in particular two students: Raima Dutt, a public high school junior in Louisville, Kentucky, and Esha Bajwa, a freshman at the University of Louisville. To better understand their experiences and what kind of information they need to make decisions, DQC President and CEO Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger sat down for a discussion with Raima and Esha. Their conversation is below, edited and condensed for clarity. 

Jennifer Bell-Ellwanger: Hi, Raima and Esha! I’m glad that you are both on today, thank you so much for joining me. I have three kids, two are through college and one is a freshman in college. They’re going through many of the same things that both of you are going through. I’m looking forward to comparing notes. You both worked to help develop DQC’s student poll. Did anything surprise you about the results?   

Raima Dutt: There are definitely things that surprised me right off the bat, seeing that other students are having shared experiences in such big numbers—it’s kind of alarming. But another part of me wasn’t that surprised because I know I’ve had experiences where I haven’t received that much data from my high school. So seeing how that was nationwide, I think this data really points out things that school districts can work on and hopefully learn from.   

Esha Bajwa: I definitely think the statistics about not knowing graduation requirements or on-target learning objectives, as much as it’s not surprising, it’s still shocking to see how large that number was.  

Jennifer: One of the findings that for me was so stunning was the high percentage of students who said not just that this school year was challenging for them, but that the pandemic and this school year are changing what they’re thinking about next steps after they leave high school. How has the pandemic affected how you think about your next steps and what you want to get out of the future?  

Esha: The pandemic 100% shifted my perspective on school because I saw it as a very core aspect of my life. It was challenging for someone who really cared about school and felt like school was their life to see how the educational landscape was transforming so quickly. And then in terms of future and career, I feel like the pandemic really taught me not to rush or pressure myself to have everything completely planned out, because things happen. I just learned a lot of adaptability and open-mindedness and to let my career form authentically. Is this right for me versus doing the exact thing I planned out since middle school. 

Jennifer: That flexibility you talked about. It’s like, wait a second, maybe I’m more open to different paths. A lot of the students in our poll said that they did not have the information that they needed to help them stay on track, regardless of the path they were on. What was your experience? Were you able to have the information that you needed to make sure that you stayed on track?  

Esha: I moved states right before senior year. So I was brand new to Kentucky, and it was not always clearly communicated what the graduation requirements were because they’re different even from high school to high school. And I just remember, it was a couple weeks into my senior year, and they pulled me out of class to take a civics exam and I wasn’t told really anything. I was like, what test am I taking? And when I got there they said, you need to take this to graduate. And I was just sitting there panicking because I was not told.   

Jennifer: Did your new school use your report cards or your progress reports from your previous school to help figure out where you needed to be and what requirements you had met?  

Esha: I think it took a while for them to get my transcript, which is weird because I definitely sent it immediately after moving. They did place me in classes that generally felt like they were on my level. But for some classes, I got put in a second year instead of a fourth year. It just felt weird for that period of time where I was thrown in and didn’t know what was happening. And there were a lot of students like that too.  

Jennifer: How about you, Raima? Are you getting information about being on track for graduation or the progress that you’re making?  

Raima: I would say for the graduation requirement, it’s not something where counselors individually reach out to you. I’m a junior, so I haven’t had that much of the senior experience of, hey, you have to take this credit. But in terms of my own personal data on progress I’ve made, I’ve found that I barely have any. I mean, I have my report cards and my progress checks, which just have my grades every six or eight weeks. But that’s up to me and my family to interpret. No one’s really saying these are good grades, or hey, maybe you need to get this grade up so you can pass.   

So I’ve never really received that data, and the only data that I feel like I’ve received that’s individualized is state testing. We get that data, but I feel like that’s not a very accurate representation because it’s one test and it’s also the end of the year. 

Jennifer: I think that data could use a little context to help you and your parents understand, well, what does this all mean? I completely get that. If you were able to ask your teachers, or your guidance counselor, or your academic counselors for more information, what would it be?  

Raima: I would say the biggest thing is postsecondary options, after high school. Because we kind of have to figure out our career path on our own. And I wish there was data or just information like, hey, I think you should check this out. I also wish I had more individualized data. Because on grades it’s like, say I have a 4.0 GPA or I have a 3.8. It’s hard to create a picture of what that really means.   

Esha: I would like more teachers to give me information and maybe a status update on how far we are in content. Because I know a lot of high schools don’t emphasize syllabi like college does. It was confusing for me and other people who want to plan, how far am I? Do I need to make sure I know this before even harder content comes? Small things like that.  

And then maybe something I would ask counselors for information about is student loans and how long it takes to pay them off. Because I feel like nobody talks about that because it depends what degree you get and things like that. There’s really no conversation about how this is a long-term investment and there are cons to it in terms of money, and there’s an assumption that everyone’s going to college without fully informing the students, like hey, this is what the investment is. 

Jennifer: Definitely. You know that on the poll only 35% of students even reported that the school informed them about what postsecondary or career paths were available to them. So Esha, what kind of information did you have before you decided on what you were going to do after high school and where you wanted to attend? 

Esha: One thing I do remember that I appreciated that my counselor did was give us this “getting ready for college” booklet, and it was step-by-step for FAFSA and at the back of the book it had all the colleges in Kentucky and how much they cost and that was really helpful for me. That was a good starting place, but it obviously didn’t give me all the information I needed. So I had to do research on my own.    

Jennifer: And how about you, Raima? What are you hoping you can get your hands on as you think about these important postsecondary opportunities, whether that is college or career pathways?  

Raima: I’m hoping that I have access to the resources Esha was talking about because I know there are just so many different colleges, but there are also other postsecondary options. I really hope that our school could provide local scholarship opportunities because even as a junior I’ve been looking at some of those, just to get a general idea. Because the whole college planning process is so long and tedious. 

Jennifer: One of the things that you’re both saying, and I’ve heard this from many high school students that I’ve spoken to, is that you want this information sooner rather than later. Students don’t want to wait until they are almost through high school to start this, but to have information along the way so that they can make informed decisions. Who are your go-to people when you’re trying to navigate these important decisions about next steps after high school or beyond? Is there anybody else or is it just really your parents that you’re leaning on to navigate these decisions?   

Raima: I would say my closest teachers who know me, not just academically in the classroom, but also as a person. And then I would say older siblings and cousins from their experiences of here, this is good, this is bad, stay away from this.

Jennifer: And is there any information in particular that you would hope these adults had access to as you’re having these conversations? 

Raima: Things like the amount of years you have to go to college for a graduate degree. You know, different majors have so many different requirements. Like if you want to go into medicine, you’re going to be in school for a lot longer than if you just want a bachelor’s. 

Jennifer: How about you, Esha? Who helped? Who do you go to? 

Esha: I mainly go to my older sister because she’s really like another parent. I also had a close teacher my senior year, who was a network engineer before he was a teacher. So, he had a lot of experience that it was really nice to draw from. He taught me that there’s so many different things that I can do and not to stress about which particular job I can get with this one degree.  In terms of my parents, I’ve had to discover a lot of things on my own. I have immigrant parents and sometimes it’s hard for them to like fully connect with my experience growing up here in America. So it’s like, okay, I’ll figure this out my own. It’s okay.  

Jennifer: Would there have been some helpful information or data that your parents could have had that would’ve helped you in your conversations? That the school could have helped them with, so that then they could have helped you?   

Esha: Definitely, yeah. I mean my parents do speak English and they’ve been here for 20-plus years, but still it’s hard to navigate. It’s so different. If there were more resources, particularly for immigrant parents, I think it would reach more families. Resources that would allow those families to understand, okay, your child is going through something completely different from what you grew up with, but here’s how you can still help. Just things like that where you’re reaching out to those families and trying to help them would be helpful. Because I doubt very many schools do that.  

Jennifer: Well I could ask you lots more questions, but I feel like maybe we could turn the tables and you might have a couple of questions for me. 

Esha: As someone who has worked at the district and federal levels and is now in the advocacy space, where do you see opportunities for leaders at different levels to help students get the information they need?  

Jennifer: I think the first thing is like the conversation that we’re having here, listening to students. You are sharing what data you need to make decisions or what data your families need or even your teachers. What are those things that you want to be able to talk about or have in front of you when you’re making important decisions? We’re always talking about supporting students, but we forget to talk about what students actually need. 

DQC did another survey with AASA, the School Superintendent’s Association. It was about what school leaders can do to support students and what they need to help students get the information that they need. We have to think about it from both of those angles. And you wouldn’t be shocked to find out that 98% of the superintendents felt that they needed better access to information. So you’re not alone. Basically everybody who we polled thought that if they had data, it would be very useful around helping students navigate postsecondary options.   

Counselors, too. We’re hearing so much from counselors about what information that they need to help you. And it sounds like both of you had positive experiences with counselors, but it’s a key group we need to work on getting access to data around career and postsecondary opportunities so they can help you make those decisions.  

Raima: Often it can feel like there’s like so much information out there on the internet and in books, but it’s not necessarily helpful for making decisions just because there is so much. Why do you think it’s hard to find accessible, useful information?   

Jennifer: A key piece is thinking what questions we’re trying to answer using data. Often, you get a lot of data in spreadsheets, but it doesn’t answer questions. It’s about accountability. One way that states can help is through their state report card, which is a very public document that talks about all the different outcomes of students in their state. It’s about prioritizing making data useful, but again, to do that it needs to be grounded in the questions that people need answers to.  

As schools continue to recover from the pandemic, states and districts must listen to students to ensure students have access to all the information they need to make important postsecondary and career decisions. Without access to data about their own progress and options, students are being left in the dark.  

Read the full student poll from DQC and the Kentucky Student Voice Team, conducted by The Harris Poll, here