Education Opinion

Graduation Rate Up, But Is Learning?

By Walt Gardner — May 05, 2014 1 min read
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The overall high school graduation rate nationwide rose from 73 percent in 2006 to 81 percent in 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In California, the rate was over 80 percent for the first time in the state’s history (“California’s high school graduation rate passes 80% for first time,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 28).

Ordinarily, this news would be cause for celebration, but I have to ask a question: Why do more than 35 percent of students need remediation when they reach college? (The picture is worse for community colleges.) If high schools are doing their job better, as the improved graduation rate would seem to indicate, then fewer students in colleges should need remedial classes.

However, that is not the case. Instead, it seems that quality is being sacrificed for quantity. One reason is that students today are increasingly prodded to take credit-recovery programs online. Allowing students who flunk a course to make it up in a few days will boost a school’s graduation rate, but it makes a travesty of learning (“L.A. district weighing graduation of students who failed class,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 29, 2012).

A more accurate picture would require districts to report both the current high school graduation rate and the college-ready rate. I think the disparity would be dramatic. But such transparency is unlikely to become a reality because it would prove too embarrassing. Instead, we persist in the fiction that higher graduation rates mean greater learning.

That does a disservice to all stakeholders. First, students are left with the impression that they are ready for college, when too often they are not. Second, parents assume heavy debt to pay for college in the belief that a high school diploma means mastery, when in fact their children would be better off entering the workplace through apprenticeship programs. Finally, taxpayers are deceived that students are being well educated with their dollars.

It’s a national scandal that no one wants to talk about because it’s too controversial.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.