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All-Time High Graduation Rate Is Deceiving

The news that the high-school graduation rate hit an historic peak would seem to be an occasion for celebration ("As Graduation Rates Rise, Experts Fear Diplomas Come Up Short," The New York Times, Dec. 27). But a closer look raises certain questions ("The Counterfeit High School Diploma," The New York Times, Dec. 31).

A high school diploma is supposed to mean that students have mastered the basics. But more than half of students enrolled in community colleges take at least one remedial class in math, reading, or writing, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University. If a diploma meant anything at all, that should never be necessary. I made this point yesterday in a letter to the editor ("The Value of a High School Diploma," The New York Times, Jan. 3).                                       

The absurdity of the matter was last seen at William Cullen Bryant High School in the New York City system. A student expressed disbelief that she was allowed to graduate when she knew she didn't deserve it ("Student's stunning plea: Why did NYC let me graduate high school?" New York Post, Aug. 2). I wonder how many more such travesties exist?                                                      

In New York City, the number of high schools excused from taking the state's Regents exams nearly doubled last year ("Graduation rates soar as more students skip Regents exam," New York Post, Dec. 28). As a result, many of their graduation rates soared, leaving the impression that learning had dramatically improved. (In all fairness, many of these schools enrolled large numbers of students who were new to this country.)  

In an attempt to look good in today's accountability era, other high schools across the country have lowered standards so much that a diploma has lost whatever cachet it may once have had. Students are shortchanged, as are all other stakeholders in public education. We think we are helping students by giving them something they haven't earned. We justify our actions by citing the so-called prison pipeline. But schools exist for learning. Anything that undermines that mission cheats everyone.

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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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