83% get a diploma, but what is it worth?

What should a high school diploma mean? What should 12 years of public education add up to?

In my view, it should mean you are ready for a job or for general postsecondary training. It should mean we have given you the appropriate skills for your next academic step.

Not every graduate needs to be prepared for coursework at an elite college or even a public four-year university, but a high school diploma should mean you are ready to perform at community college level.

So it’s discouraging when last week’s news that we are graduating 83% of American high school students is followed up by this week’s news — that so many of them require remediation that we need to design new 12th grade classes to help.

“Fed up with long rosters of college freshmen who can’t handle college-level courses, states are increasingly turning to 12th grade transition classes,” Education Week reported Oct. 26.

The article reveals that two-thirds of high school graduates who enroll in community college require remediation; so do 40 percent of those who attend public four-year institutions.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of 12th grade transition classes — except that this is what already should be happening in 12th grade. Why are we graduating so many high school seniors who can’t do this level of work?

I know the answer. We are under so much pressure to graduate students that we would rather hand them a meaningless diploma than let them fail. I’ve had those conversations with parents and counselors, the “he (or she) just needs to graduate” conversation. It’s painful.

Sadly, people actually believe this — that high school graduation is enough. I realize having a diploma beats not having one when you go out to look for a job, but ultimately having the skills that a diploma should represent is what really counts. That’s what employers and colleges need.

And think about this: We are spending upwards of $100K per child to provide this free public education. It should mean something. It should at least be useful to the young adult who has completed it.

I would like to see a nonprofit like the College Board or ACT begin offering graduation tests that would let students demonstrate their actual skills and knowledge in a way that could be presented to employers and community colleges. That would separate the “stamp of approval” from the teachers and schools, so we could no longer collude in reducing expectations to push kids through.

Even better, teenagers reaching the end of their 12 years would start to see their teachers as coaches and helpers — the people who can get them where they want to be — rather than as impediments to their narrow goal of diploma acquisition.

The states that are implementing “12th grade transition classes” have the right idea, but unfortunately, it’s not enough. Too many students still won’t realize that they want or need postsecondary training, and they’ll still graduate with precariously low skills. They’ll find out too late that they missed out on what was important about school.

We need every graduate to be ready for the next stage of their lives, whether it is more education or a job. A diploma should be enough to signal that they are.