Our Opinion: In quest to raise high school graduation rates, don’t shortchange students

October 26th, 2016 6:52 pm

Since becoming president at United Way of Wyoming Valley, Bill Jones has helped to shift the agency’s focus to programs that can reduce childhood poverty, with education nabbing a big chunk of his attention.

Jones and the agency’s staffers deserve praise for that long-term emphasis, which will be on full display Friday during the GradNation Community Summit at Mohegan Sun Pocono in Plains Township. (To register, visit uwwvsummit.eventbrite.com.)

“Graduation rates are a key indicator of the health and well-being of a community,” Jones said. “Over time, we can strengthen and improve the Wyoming Valley by increasing our graduation rates.”

There is no counter argument. Research repeatedly and conclusively has shown that earning a high school degree benefits both the alum through higher lifetime earnings and society through reduced occurrences of things such as crime, unemployment and addiction.

But while lauding this and any effort to improve graduation rates, no one should mistakenly believe this is purely a matter of numbers, as if victory can be declared merely by propelling the rate to 90 percent or even 95.

Any push by school district officials and others for higher graduation rates must not come by inadvertently watering down the value of the diploma.

On one hand, as Education Week recently noted, the nation’s new “record high” graduation rate of 83.2 percent comes at a time when standards have been made more rigorous, and the number of students taking Advanced Placement tests is up sharply.

On the other hand, it comes when results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests – the “nation’s report card” – have either flat-lined or even dropped slightly. And it comes when roughly one-third of first-year college students take remedial courses to learn skills they seemingly should have mastered in high school.

The bottom line is what it has been since states wisely started mandating compulsory education, even before it was extended beyond elementary grades to high school: We must prepare students for what’s ahead – in careers, in higher ed, and in being a better citizen.

Any effort to boost graduation rates is worthwhile. But it always must go hand in hand with a hard look at the true value of the diploma.

The skills needed to “be prepared” upon graduating high school are a shifting target in this rapidly evolving world. It’s not enough to make sure students get diplomas; they have to gain the knowledge and be able to apply it.

Attendees at this week’s summit will best serve the community by not seeing a lofty graduation rate as the sole objective, but rather a reflection of progress made in preparing students for career readiness and success in life.

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