As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short

Motoko Rich, New York Times, December 26, 2015

A sign in a classroom here at Berea High School, northwest of downtown in the largest urban district in the state, sends this powerful message: “Failure Is Not an Option. You Will Pass. You Will Learn. You Will Succeed.”

By one measure, Berea, with more than 1,000 pupils, is helping more students succeed than ever: The graduation rate, below 65 percent just four years ago, has jumped to more than 80 percent.

But that does not necessarily mean that all of Berea’s graduates, many of whom come from poor families, are ready for college–or even for the working world. According to college entrance exams administered to every 11th grader in the state last spring, only one in 10 Berea students were ready for college-level work in reading, and about one in 14 were ready for entry-level college math. And on a separate test of skills needed to succeed in most jobs, little more than half of the students demonstrated that they could handle the math they would need.

It is a pattern repeated in other school districts across the state and country–urban, suburban and rural–where the number of students earning high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation requirements are too easy.

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{snip} Earlier this month, the Department of Education announced that the national graduation rate hit 82 percent in 2013-14, the highest on record.

But “the goal is not just high school graduation,” Arne Duncan, the departing secretary of education, said in a telephone interview. “The goal is being truly college and career ready.”

The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work. College remediation and dropout rates remain stubbornly high, particularly at two-year institutions, where fewer than a third who enroll complete a degree even within three years.

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Still, there is no single reason these rates have increased.

Economists point to a decline in the teenage pregnancy rate, as well as a reduction in violent crime among teenagers. Some districts use data systems to identify students with multiple absences or failed classes so educators can better help them. And an increasing number of states and districts offer students more chances to make up failed credits online or in short tutoring sessions without repeating a whole semester or more.

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Over the past decade in California, several large urban districts adopted coursework guidelines aligned to entrance requirements at the state’s public universities. Los Angeles initially required that students earn at least a C in those classes, but the number of students on track to graduate plummeted. Now grades of D or higher are accepted.

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In South Carolina, students must take four years of English and math and three years of social studies and science. Last year, the legislature voted to eliminate the exit exam. Parents of students with disabilities argued that the test made it difficult for their children to graduate, while business leaders said it did not indicate that students were ready for work.

“Quite honestly, it had become very easy, and it didn’t mean a lot,” said Molly Spearman, the state superintendent of education.

Last year, the legislature required all 11th graders to take a test assessing college and career readiness, as well as an exam that measured academic skills needed for most jobs.

The first results, from the ACT college admissions tests, showed that only about a quarter of students statewide were ready for either college-level math or reading. Just 6 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic students scored ready for college in math, with only slightly higher rates for reading. In one poor rural district where most of the students are African-American, graduation rates have risen to more than 85 percent, yet not one student scored high enough on the ACT to be deemed ready for college in reading or math.

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