Report: High School Guidance Counselors Underutilized

Kelsey Sheehy

School counselors can be a vital piece of the college-readiness puzzle for high school students, but many counselors are bogged down with tasks that don't allow them to put their skills to work.

"[In] our district, we are typically given every fundraiser, every party committee ... any need that there is, counselors are given it," says Kathy Smallwood, a guidance counselor at Mobile County Public Schools in Alabama.

Nearly 70 percent of high school counselors say they are tasked with administrative and clerical duties, according to a report released Wednesday by the College Board, a nonprofit organization that administers the SAT college entrance exam and oversees the AP program.

[Learn to weigh the benefits vs. stress of AP courses.]

Another 60 percent of high school counselors count test coordination as one of their job responsibilities, the report notes. The annual survey included responses from 806 middle school and 2,084 high school counselors.

Tasking counselors with testing duties is a waste of highly trained resources, says Pat Martin, assistant vice president of College Board's National Office for School Counselor Advocacy.

"School counselors ... are required to have a master's degree, teachers are not," Martin says. "To assign the kinds of clerical, low-level duties that school counselors are doing across the country is a terrible underutilization of a really, really critical force of people that could be redeployed to do meaningful ... things for students."

Among those things: Encouraging students to take AP courses, helping students through the college application and financial aid process, and connecting students with community resources to help them succeed both during high school and after graduation.

William M. Raines High School in Florida more than doubled the number of students taking AP exams between 2006 and 2010, largely due to the efforts of the school's counselors, according to the report.

[Read why high school students need to think, not memorize.]

At Chicago Public Schools, a retooled counseling model helped boost college enrollment rates for CPS students from 44 percent in 2004 to 60 percent in 2011, the report notes. The new approach put a greater emphasis on data--school attendance rates, AP enrollment, SAT scores, FAFSA completion, and college application completion--and the district used the information to tailor action plans to each school's needs, according to the report.

Leveraging data to improve student achievement can help counselors elevate their status from fundraisers and test proctors to leaders, says Smallwood, the guidance counselor in Mobile.

But counselors can't effect change from behind their desks, says Peggy Hines, director of the Education Trust's National Center for Transforming School Counseling.

"They really need to be out of their office ... teaming and collaborating to help the school better meet student needs," Hines says. "That means that school counselors are leaders and advocates, who use data to help the school figure out where, really and truly, they need to focus their school reform efforts and school improvement projects."

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