The High School Graduation Miracle

High school graduation rates have skyrocketed in recent years. From 2006 to 2013, U.S. graduation rates increased from 73% to 82%. Yet over this same time period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that the reading and math achievement of 12th graders have not budged at all.

How can these two apparently contradictory facts be reconciled? The unavoidable conclusion is that many students who were not graduating before are graduating now, or put another way, high school graduates today have lower skills than did students just a few years ago.

I don’t know exactly why this is happening, but I have a few guesses. One is that the use of what is called “credit recovery” has increased dramatically. Credit recovery means providing students who failed a given course another opportunity to pass. Apparently these courses are much easier to pass than the initial course. For example, a July 2, 2017 article in the LA Times described a credit recovery program in which a student could raise his grade from F to C in one week during the winter break. The report followed one student, who never did any lab work, but was seen copying a food pyramid from the Internet onto a worksheet. Credit Recovery courses are often offered online, in which case students can take them at home. Does this worry you? It does me.

Another possibility is that as graduation has become a focus of school accountability in many states and districts, teachers come under pressure to let marginal students pass. Unlike other accountability measures, graduation is determined by students’ grades, course credits, and other indicators that are subjective. Teachers may reason that passing such students benefits the students, the school, and themselves. So why not?

There is nothing wrong in principle with higher graduation rates, but if they are accomplished by lowering standards, then a high school diploma becomes even less valued than diplomas were in the past. This is unfair to students who work hard and pass their courses fairly, and it may contribute to cynicism throughout the system.

Further, reducing graduation standards undermines the efforts of administrators and teachers who truly want to improve student achievement as a way to improve graduation rates. If it’s a lot easier to provide credit recovery classes or to lower standards, then genuine reformers may be discouraged.

I hope there is some more optimistic explanation for the increase in high school graduation contrasted with the lack of gains in achievement. I’d love to believe that graduation rates are truly going up because of better schools and teachers, harder-working students, or other factors. Graduation is important for students, but for our society and our economy, it matters more what students can actually do. Letting students graduate without adequate skills is something we should not let pass.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

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