Have you heard the good news? (No.. not that Good News.) The high school graduation rate in Chicago has finally started going back up as of the last full year of available records. (2012-2013) It jumped up from 61% to 63%, which still isn’t really close to the national rate of 81%, but hey… at least it’s improving, right?

According to an investigation done by NPR (of all places) the news might not be quite as sunny and cheerful as the headlines would indicate. Graduating more students isn’t really a positive accomplishment if the graduates in question are making it out the door on a technicality and are not prepared for either college or a job. And in Chicago, that seems to be the case far too often.

First of all, the “percentage who graduate” isn’t accurate if you mislabel a lot of the dropouts.

Basically, we found that many high schools in the city were mislabeling students when they left. They were saying they were moving out of town or going to private schools when, in reality, they were enrolling at the district’s alternative schools or, in some cases, GED programs…

Well, it’s making it look better than it really is because mislabeling those students makes them disappear from the denominator.

But even the ones who stick around and graduate were frequently getting credit for work which was dubious to say the least. Many students achieved the required minimums through “credit recovery.” This process allowed students who failed required courses to “retake” the class at home and/or online with limited teacher supervision and far fewer questions to answer.

Plenty of cities are apparently using similar tactics to Chicago. Camden, New Jersey has an interesting optional program for kids who fail their finals. They get to try again with a substantially easier course.

In New Jersey, if you fail the first-round high school exit exam, there’s a second exam you can take — an easier one. It’s untimed, and it consists of just one single question per subject. In Camden, half the senior class failed not just the first test but the second one too…

[I]n New Jersey as in many states with grad exams, there’s a Plan B. There’s an appeals process. And students can submit samples of work they did in class to the state. It can be a single, graded algebra problem or a persuasive essay with a teacher’s comments on it.

That “plan B” was apparently used by nearly 1,500 students in New Jersey alone. Good work if you can get it, as the saying goes, but are these students in any way ready to succeed in either academia or the work force? It doesn’t sound it.

Illinois Policy says that even that story doesn’t tell the whole tale when it comes to Chicago.

Unfortunately, these requirements are not rigorous. In fact, students can fail one of four core classes (English, mathematics, science and social sciences) each year and still advance to the next grade level. They also only have to garner just a D in each class they take to earn the 24 credit hours they need to graduate.

It’s important to remember what a graduation rate doesn’t tell us – namely, how prepared the graduating students are for college. On that front, CPS and the CTU are failing miserably.

According to a recent report, 45 percent of CPS graduates begin their senior year not doing well enough academically to attend a four-year college. In the fall after graduation, the most common outcome for these students was to be neither working nor in school.

NPR also showed the opposite side of the coin when they explored the state with the highest graduation rate in the country. Care to take a guess?

It’s Iowa, at 90%. They talk about a number of programs which Iowa has used to keep kids in the classrooms, including free day care, food banks, smaller classes and flexible hours. Those all sound great, and if the districts can manage the funding there’s plenty to like about them. But at the same time, nothing is ever going to replace a solid home life and parents who will actually force those kids out of bed in the morning, make sure they make it to school, check on their progress regularly, help them with their lessons and discipline them when needed. Is there simply more of that in Iowa?

That would be nearly impossible metric to quantify, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Government can provide education as a form of supplied services, but they can’t force it on anyone. That happens from the bottom up. And for too many kids in Chicago and many other large cities, that’s clearly not happening. The sad result is that a lot of those children will never really stand a chance later in life.