It’s now no secret that graduation rates have hit an all-time high of 82%, and as our previous blog post reminds us, the rate is even higher when we count students who took more than 4 years to earn their diploma. But, what does a high school diploma today mean? Unfortunately, as Robert Pondiscio at the Thomas Fordham Institute points out, SAT scores have dropped, the recent NAEP performance has seen a slight decrease, and there is a growing need for higher education institutions to offer remedial courses.
The newest report from Achieve – Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma That Counts reiterates the point that while more high school students are earning diplomas, these students are not necessarily adequately prepared for the next stage of their lives. In fact, over half of college-going students will have to take at least one remedial English or math course. In addition, less than half of college-goers actually graduate and 60 percent of employers report that high school graduates are lacking the necessary basic skills.
In light of this, we may need to tamper the excitement of rising high school graduation rates. Rather, we need to focus on making a high school diploma more meaningful. Students who graduate high school must be college and/or career ready. This is the next wave of reform. Many organizations, including Achieve, are working to create high school standards that are better aligned with the skills students need to be successful in college and career. The first part of this means to raise the standards for high school students to graduate and work to bridge the gap in academic expectations between high school and college. The second part is to include more career readiness skills in the high school curriculum. CPE’s report “The Path Least Taken” highlights the need for non-college-going students to have the necessary skills to achieve economic success. There is much debate about what career readiness skills are and where schools will find time in the school day to teach them (ex. Financial literacy, email etiquette, personal responsibility etc.). The conversation around that will, and should, continue.
Achieve advocates for including more “real world tasks” as assessments in schools. This is critical. Teachers will all agree on the difficulty of getting students to see the purpose behind the content they learn in classes, which in turn effects their engagement in class. Students don’t see the relevancy of Algebra II, English, Physics, etc. in real life or believe they will ever need those skills in the workplace. Standards, tests, and curriculum can be better aligned with real-world examples and projects so that students are more engaged in the learning. Higher levels of engagement will lead to retention of material and consequently higher academic performance in high school and beyond.
In sum, it is laudable that high school graduation rates are improving. But there is still much work to be done to raise the actual academic performance of the students and make sure that a diploma accurately represents a readiness for life beyond high school. -Breanna Higgins