It was June 1, the traditional beginning of parental complaints about how little work is done as the school year nears an end. Arlington parent Drew Bendon put it well in an e-mail to me: “Every year the standardized tests come and go, and after that the education stops.”
Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, as well as the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, are done. Movies and field trips to Kings Dominion are filling the void. Many parents think as Bendon does — that time in June is as precious as time in May and that something more could be done with it.
Bendon asked why the AP and IB exams couldn’t be given in the last weeks of the academic calendar so school could shut down right after. It is an interesting idea, but it overlooks the fact that even in the Washington area, which leads the nation in AP and IB test-taking, regular courses outnumber those college-level offerings. Time must be preserved at the end of the semester for regular course final exams. Virginia law pushes school well into June, exacerbating the problem.
The concerns of Bendon and other conscientious parents partially stem from the unusually high level of instruction in this region’s schools. In most U.S. schools, the easing off in June is not so noticeable because the number of students in AP, IB or Cambridge courses is small, and most regular courses do not demand as much as regular courses do here.
Many Washington-area high schools enjoy a vigorous and enlightening change of pace about now as they unleash their seniors on projects of their choosing. At Washington-Lee High School, where one of Bendon’s sons is a junior, June is the time for the Senior Experience program, with special research, internships, part-time jobs or volunteer activities. Students must be at it 25 hours a week for three weeks, though — in a true sign of freedom — “they do not necessarily need to align with W-L’s bell schedule,” the school says.
Such end-of-the-year programs for 12th-graders are common in well-run high schools such as Washington-Lee. My first child drove with friends to 24 major league baseball parks the previous summer and wrote a lengthy report on the experience for his California school. My second child attended a New York school, where he spent his last weeks of his senior year interning at a golf course pro shop. My third child stepped away from her usual interests — nobody in my family is the least bit handy — and with a classmate built a wooden newspaper rack. I believe it is still in use at her school in the District.
At my request, Bendon questioned his high school junior and his middle school son about what they are doing these days. It did not sound so bad to me.
“From my high schooler I’ve learned that at least half of his courses are still doing regular work,” Bendon said. But many students are not attending that son’s math class, where he spends much time chatting with the teacher about current events and whether college fraternities should exist. In psychology, he watched a documentary on depression. “My son felt compelled to send me a photo in which two students were asleep at their desks.”
Some of that time might be better spent with college counselors or in study hall doing work for other classes, Bendon said, “so they can go to sleep earlier.”
At Jefferson Middle School, his younger son was completing an “ABCs of Teen Culture” packet in geography. He was also looking forward to a fun-time final week that Bendon found irksome: academic awards ceremony on Thursday; yearbook signing, student-staff basketball game and a dance on Friday; Kings Dominion on Monday; promotion practice and picnic on Tuesday; promotion ceremony on Wednesday; and a half-day of sitting before it all ends the next Thursday.
“Nearly this entire week seems like a waste of time to me,” Bendon said. He has a point, but given the depth of what his sons have been learning during the year, I’d let it go.