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Editorial Too many graduate without enough learning

November 25, 2018

The graduation rate for Connecticut’s high schools is at an all-time high, having risen to 88 percent, up from 83 percent seven years ago. At first glance that would seem to be a good thing, and in some ways it is.

Three-fourths of Connecticut’s high school graduates enroll in college within 16 months of graduation. That would seem to be a good thing as well.

A third of those graduates enroll in the state’s community colleges or in one of its four regional universities. Nearly half of those graduates required remedial courses in reading, writing, or math within the first two years of enrollment. That’s according to newly released figures for 2012, the latest statistics gathered by the state, which tracks remedial rates only at those colleges.

Put another way, nearly half of the 13,000 graduates headed for the state’s regional and community colleges arrive unprepared, having failed to learn what they needed to know in order to graduate high school, including, in some cases, how to read their own diplomas. (School superintendents from Bridgeport and Windham testified during a school funding trial in 2016 that it was not beyond the realm of possibility that illiterate students may have been awarded high school diplomas on their watch.)

All of which begs the question: Just how much is a high school diploma worth?

It’s a matter of growing urgency at a time when a high school education is more often a ticket to further education than it is a gateway to high-paying jobs in industry or manufacturing. Today’s employers increasingly want to hire college graduates regardless of occupation. Instead, we’re producing an ever-growing force of unskilled labor.

Over the past decade, lawmakers in Connecticut and elsewhere have been grappling with setting higher standards for high school diplomas. In 2010, Connecticut state legislators decided that in order to graduate, students should be required to pass exams in algebra, geometry, biology, American history and English, earn six additional credits, and complete a senior project.

To pay for all that, the state tried — three times — to secure funding under Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s competition to stimulate education reform. No federal funds were forthcoming.

Last year, the state did away with the exit exams and jettisoned the senior project in favor of “mastery-based diploma assessment,” achieved “through educational experiences and opportunities that provide flexible and multiple pathways to learning.” The surviving requirement — the six-credit increase — won’t see daylight until 2020 at the earliest, following the most recent legislative postponement.

It’s easier — to say nothing of cheaper — for schools to lower their standards than it is to improve education. Instead, graduation rates have become the benchmark for schools’ progress. Needless to say, higher standards would lower them.

But the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics has pronounced the United States less educated than it was a generation ago. That needs to change.

Today’s rising graduation rates mean little given the percentage of students who show up for college unprepared to do college-level work.

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