On the American education front this is one of those good news bad news stories.

The good news is that the graduation rate is at an all time high. That actually is good news, or at least it should be. As of the 2013-14 school year 82 percent of students obtained a high school diploma on schedule. That’s pretty impressive when you consider that the rate didn’t even break fifty percent until Eisenhower was in office and before that having a high school diploma was more the exception than the rule.

Graduation

Now for the bad news. While graduation rates are going up, basic skills in math and reading don’t seem to be. In fact, scores in the former category are slipping and in the latter they are barely holding steady. (Washington Post)

The nation’s high school seniors have shown no improvement in reading achievement and their math performance has slipped since 2013, according to the results of a test administered by the federal government last year.

The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also show a longer-term stagnation in 12th-grade performance in U.S. public and private schools: Scores on the 2015 reading test have dropped five points since 1992, the earliest year with comparable scores, and are unchanged in math during the past decade.

“These numbers are not going the way we want,” said William J. Bushaw, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, an independent panel established by Congress to oversee NAEP policy. “We have to redouble our efforts to prepare our students.”

So we’re graduating more kids than ever, but they don’t seem to be getting any better at fundamental skills on average. How are we to explain that? I suppose on possibility is that more of the kids who were previously being left behind are getting more attention and catching up with the rest of the pack. That probably wouldn’t’ be the worst outcome in the world. But the continual mantra is that we need to keep improving, driving the kids to outperform everyone else in a competitive global market. If that’s the measuring stick then we’re falling further behind.

The WaPo article also poses another interesting question. Is the value of a high school diploma simply decreasing? We can tackle that question two ways. The first is to assume that these test results mean that we’re simply passing more kids through the system and not adequately educating them so the diploma doesn’t mean as much. That’s always possible when you consider the number of kids going to college on athletic scholarships who can barely even read.

But here’s another thought to ponder. Perhaps we don’t value high school diplomas as much because, as a society, we tend to denigrate those who don’t aspire to go to college and who instead choose to either go to technical school, join the military or go straight to work in some sort of apprenticeship program. There’s no denying that it’s true. We pressure kids to go and amass tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt only to emerge with a degree that doesn’t get them a job paying much more than they’d get at Burger King.

Not everyone is destined for college. For some, a job in a field like HVAC or welding can lead to a very lucrative career without nearly as much debt hanging over their heads. If we stop treating them like failures as soon as they go to work, a high school degree might mean a bit more and encourage students to work harder for it. Just some food for thought.

School Tenure