As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has a page-one article this morning questioning the euphoria surrounding the announcement that the national high-school graduation rate  had hit 82 percent in 2013-14, the highest on record.  Experts as well as data from several sources indicate that large percentages of high school graduates are not ready for college-level work.  As the article indicates, 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.   The article goes on to state:

“…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.

States also vary widely in diploma requirements. In California, South Carolina and Tennessee, the authorities have recently eliminated requirements that students pass exit exams to qualify for a diploma. Alaska, California, Wisconsin and Wyoming demand far fewer credits to graduate than most states, according to the Education Commission of the States, although local school districts may require more.

According to one analysis of requirements for the class of 2014, 32 states did not require that all graduates take four years of English and math through Algebra II or its equivalent, which is often defined as the minimum to be prepared for college.

“Students and their families rely on and trust the high school diploma as a signal of readiness,” said Alissa Peltzman, the vice president of state policy at Achieve, a nonprofit that performed the study. “It needs to mean something. Otherwise, it’s a false promise for thousands of students.”

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.

“It’s a push and pull between rigorous standards that are harder to meet,” said Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “and less rigorous standards that are easier to meet but don’t necessarily ensure that you know that much.”

Here in New York City, there has been an over-reliance on credit recovery programs designed to help students make up courses that they needed to graduate.   Students are able to pass the credit-recovery courses to graduate but do not show improvement on college readiness tests as determined by the City University of New York and other colleges.

While we can take some comfort that graduation are going in the right direction, concerns about the readiness of high school students remain a key issue and need to be addressed.



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