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What Does a High School Diploma Mean?

I'm glad to know that this year's high school graduation rate of 80 percent is an all-time high ("Stop Holding Us Back," The New York Times, Jun. 8).  But I'm also concerned that we're conflating the rate with learning.  Unfortunately, they're not necessarily the same.

I say that because in our obsession with improving the percentage of students who graduate we're allowing students to take shortcuts that ultimately shortchange them.  Consider what is known as credit recovery ("Credit Recovery Hits the Mainstream," Education Next, Summer 2014). According to the National Center for Education Statistics, major online providers report surging enrollments. The trouble is that there is little accountability.  As a result, we don't know very much about the quality of these programs.

But I suspect that credit recovery programs are being abused in order to boost the graduation rate. In the past, students whose graduation was in jeopardy could take summer school or correspondence classes.  I taught summer school for several years.  Although I tried to provide the same quality of instruction as during the regular school year, I always felt unable to do so because of the compressed time frame.

I have nothing at all against online education, as long as it is rigorous.  But I wonder how many districts are willing to uphold high standards for all students if that means some marginal students will drop out? One way of approaching the dilemma is through blended learning.  That means students spend part of the time in traditional classes.  However, with pressure mounting to post ever- increasing graduation rates, will schools want to run the risk of being sanctioned or closed if they fail to deliver?

What makes the issue even more sensitive is that students most likely not to graduate are enrolled in 660 of more than 12,600 regular and vocational high schools.  These schools are overwhelmingly populated by poor students of color.  Efforts to help them succeed almost always start too late in my opinion.  I don't doubt that black and Hispanic students are most at risk between the ages 11 to 21.  But I suspect that there were signs earlier in their lives. Department of Education data show that these students are already three months behind other students when they enter kindergarten, and never catch up.

If I'm right, then intervention has to begin much sooner.  That's why I support preschooling in its various forms.  Sucess tends to build on success.  By identifying students most at risk, we can start them on a track of positive achievement.  Then the high school diploma they receive will indeed mean something.  

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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.

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