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High School Diploma Should Mean Something

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Message Patrick Mattimore
It's hard to quibble with Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings' proposed revisions to NCLB which mandate states to use uniform measures to report high school graduation rates. While it's helpful to have accurate data though, 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.

Our students' poor performances on comparative international tests are well-documented. On both the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Third International Mathematics and Science Study our high school students ranked only average for industrialized nations. 
Among students taking the college entrance exam administered by ACT (formerly American College Testing) in 2008, less 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 on the ACT exam (which included reading and English in addition to science and math) was 22 percent. In other words, less 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 insuring that our 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 insure that the high school diploma signifies academic excellence.

Our perspective on American education can be easily distorted by a view from the very top. The Advanced Placement program, administered by the College Board, is a series of college-level courses taught in many of our nation's high schools for which students may earn college credit. The AP program has been expanding at a rate of about 10 percent per year. Increasingly, AP students enter universities with sufficient credit to skip an entire year of college instruction. 

Likewise, the nation's most selective universities just reported the most competitive admission's cycle in our country's history. Top colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, accepted less than one out of every ten applicants. Those colleges continue to report that the SAT, ACT, and  high school grade point averages of applicants are climbing. Our very best students still thrive academically.

Judging our country's education system by how well it serves the brightest students, however, is like evaluating a nation by how well its richest citizens live. We must insist that our schools do a better job educating all of our students. 
We can begin by establishing national standards at every grade level. School promotion should be based upon children 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 now, is that too few of those that do graduate should be graduating.  
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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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