More Students Are Graduating High School Than Ever Before. But Can They Read?

Should we be celebrating—or scrutinizing—the increase in high school graduation rates?


While more Common Core–aligned test scores trickle in, the U.S. Department of Education has released preliminary data about state-by-state high school graduation rates. Comparing these two—very different—results says a lot about the difficulty of reliably measuring student achievement across the country, and the slipperiness of the metrics used.

First, the good(-looking) news: High school graduation rates continue to rise. Thirty-six states graduated more students on time this year than last while only six (plus the District of Columbia) saw decreases in graduation rates. Eight states remained flat. Even better, the achievement gap between white and minority students tightened in more than half the states.

But turn to Common Core test results and you get a less rosy picture. Across the board, scores are lower than on previous tests—which was expected, and a big part of the point of the new, more rigorous tests. But still. As the acronym of one of the main Common Core tests, PARCC—which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers—makes clear, these tests were designed to judge college- and career-readiness, and U.S. students don’t seem to be up to the task just yet, even if they’re graduating on time in droves.

Just look at Alabama, which had the second-highest graduation-rate increase between 2012–13 and 2014–15 across all categories except for children with disabilities. Graduation rates for black students shot up 10.1 points to 84 percent, and “economically disadvantaged” students—who saw less spectacular gains nationwide—shot up 9.7 percent. But last year, when Alabama students took the state’s Common Core–aligned test for the first time, in “nearly every grade and both subjects, more than half of Alabama’s students [fell] below the cut points that connote being on track for success in college,” according to Education Week.

And in New Jersey, 88.6 percent of students who started high school in 2010 graduated on time. But on the state’s Common Core test results, released this week, the majority of students in grades 3 to 11 failed to meet grade-level benchmarks, with roughly 25 percent hitting targets in algebra II and geometry. Only 41 percent of 11th-graders were considered proficient in English. So what’s the good of graduating a bunch of kids who may or may not be able to read proficiently, beyond helping politicians and policymakers meet the imperative of “showing growth”?

It’s an open question worth revisiting every time these amazingly awesome and encouraging graduation rates come out. Over the summer, NPR did a lengthy investigation of the numbers behind that accomplishment: whether kids are graduating more because schools are actually doing a better job of educating them, or whether schools are simply misclassifying students and/or lowering the bar to achievement. Take Texas, which last year made impressive gains in graduation rates, with a dazzling 88 percent of students graduating on time—but it did so simply by changing the definition of what it means to graduate. Where does student achievement end and statistical gamesmanship begin? And are high graduation rates as meaningful when basic proficiency is still questionable? The NPR story cites a Brookings Institution study that examined:

young people’s chances of achieving a middle-class income by age 40. The researchers found that it wasn’t enough just to earn a regular high school diploma; you had to achieve a GPA of at least 2.5 (a B- or C+ average) to reap long-term social and economic benefits.

“That finding,” the story continues, “suggests that bending the rules and lowering standards may hurt young people more than it helps them.”

In other words, bring on the harder exams.