To the Editor:
It’s hard to argue with U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ call to federalize a uniform method for states to report high school graduation rates (“NCLB Plan Would Add New Rules,” April 30, 2008). But while it’s always helpful to have accurate data, developing a better mousetrap to count dropouts doesn’t address a more basic problem: the fact that those students we are graduating lack essential educational skills.
American students’ poor performance on comparative international tests is well-documented. On both the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, our high school students rank only average for industrialized nations.
Among students taking the ACT college-entrance exam in 2007, fewer than half were judged “college ready” in math, and a mere 28 percent met the science benchmark. Overall, the proportion of students meeting college-readiness benchmarks in all four areas of the exam (reading and English, in addition to science and math) was 23 percent. In other words, fewer than one-quarter of the group of high school students taking the ACT, most of whom were applying to four-year colleges, were prepared to attend college.
Secretary Spellings and others have demanded that we do a better job of ensuring that students graduate from high school. But our primary goal should not be to certify even larger numbers of inadequately prepped students as high school graduates. We must ensure that the high school diploma signifies academic excellence.
We can begin by establishing national standards at every grade level. School promotion should be based on children’s meeting specific criteria, not passing chronological markers.
With uniform graduation data, we will no doubt acknowledge that too few of our students graduate from high school. What is much more disturbing, though, is that too few of those who do graduate should be graduating.
The writer is a former San Francisco high school teacher.