Celebration of Increased Graduation Rates Should be Mitigated with Realities of Unequal Rigor

Yesterday the Washington Post reported that the Class of 2010 had more on-time high school graduates than any high school class in almost 40 years.  For those of us who’ve followed an unending stream of dire news about America’s public schools, yesterday’s headlines were a welcome change.

The data comes from the National Center for Education Statistics, and in the report there are a whole host of things to feel great about such as: 1) 78% of students in the Class of 2010 earned a diploma within four years of starting high school, 2) the percentage of Hispanic students graduating on-time increased 10 percentage points in a mere five years, and 3) graduation rates improved for every race and ethnicity in 2010.

However, while we as a nation should certainly take pride in the fact that the year 2010 ushered in a greater percentage of graduates, such celebration shouldn’t eclipse the reality that increasing the number of diplomas without knowing the level of rigor those diplomas represent could be a fool’s errand.

In my seven years teaching high school students, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of schools.  When I moved from teaching in a low-income school to teaching in an affluent private school, I was blown away by the different levels of rigor in the curriculum of each.  Curriculum that might have been part of a twelfth grade honors class in my previous school was the level of rigor expected in an on-level ninth grade course.  Ninth grade courses in my previous school read a few novels, many with reading levels below ninth grade, and focused almost exclusively on writing formulaic paragraphs.  In contrast, the freshmen private school students read a plethora of novels, short stories, and essays and composed fully developed, non-formulaic writing in all genres.

The rich, challenging curriculum at this private school mirrors the curriculums of many of this nation’s  public schools, and certainly the public school I attended, but it isn’t a reality for every public school student.  While there are certainly deeper questions about the correlations between income level and achievement in our schools that cannot be ignored when we compare curriculums from schools with students from different socio-economic backgrounds, this doesn’t mean we can simply ignore the reality that the level of rigor in schools nationwide is uneven.  These differences can and do play themselves out when students leave high school to move on to college, with many unprepared students unable to complete college-level work.  As CPE found in our Setting up Students to Succeed report, in 2009 only 57.8 percent of students enrolled in a four-year college graduated in less than six years, and only 32.9 percent of students in two-year institutions graduated in three years.

More students are graduating with a diploma, and that’s a good thing. But the question remains what those diplomas represent.  If more students are graduating, but graduating from schools with watered down curriculums that require little critical thinking, writing, and reading, is there really much to celebrate? On the other hand, there would be much to celebrate if more students graduated high school after completing a rigorous curriculum that prepared them not only to get into college but also for success in life.  — Allison Gulamhussein

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