By MOTOKO RICH DEC. 26, 2015, New York Times
GREENVILLE, S.C. — A sign in a classroom here at Berea High School,
northwest of downtown in the largest urban district in the state, sends this
powerful message: “Failure Is Not an Option. You Will Pass. You Will Learn.
You Will Succeed.”
By one measure, Berea, with more than 1,000 pupils, is helping more
students succeed than ever: The graduation rate, below 65 percent just four
years ago, has jumped to more than 80 percent.
But that does not necessarily mean that all of Berea’s graduates, many of
whom come from poor families, are ready for college — or even for the
working world. According to college entrance exams administered to every
11th grader in the state last spring, only one in 10 Berea students were ready
for college-level work in reading, and about one in 14 were ready for entry-level
college math. And on a separate test of skills needed to succeed in most
jobs, little more than half of the students demonstrated that they could handle
the math they would need.
It is a pattern repeated in other school districts across the state and
country — urban, suburban and rural — where the number of students earning
high school diplomas has risen to historic peaks, yet measures of academic
readiness for college or jobs are much lower. This has led educators to
question the real value of a high school diploma and whether graduation
requirements are too easy.
“Does that diploma guarantee them a hope for a life where they can
support a family?” asked Melanie D. Barton, the executive director of the
Education Oversight Committee in South Carolina, a legislative agency.
Particularly in districts where student achievement is very low, she said, “I
really don’t see it.”
Few question that in today’s economy, finishing high school is vital, given
that the availability of jobs for those without a diploma has dwindled. The
Obama administration has hailed the rising graduation rate, saying schools are
expanding opportunities for students to succeed. Earlier this month, the
Department of Education announced that the national graduation rate hit 82
percent in 201314, the highest on record.
But “the goal is not just high school graduation,” Arne Duncan, the
departing secretary of education, said in a telephone interview. “The goal is
being truly college and career ready.”
The most recent evaluation of 12th graders on a national test of reading
and math found that fewer than 40 percent were ready for college level work.
College remediation and dropout rates remain stubbornly high, particularly at
twoyear institutions, where fewer than a third who enroll complete a degree
even within three years.
In South Carolina, even with a statewide high school graduation rate of
80.3 percent, some business leaders worry that not enough students have the
abilities they need for higher-skilled jobs at Boeing, Volvo and BMW, which
have built plants here in recent years. What is more, they say, students need to
be able to collaborate and communicate effectively, skills they say high schools
do not always teach.
“If you look at what a graduation diploma guarantees today,” said Pamela
P. Lackey, the president of AT and T South Carolina, “the issue is we have a
system of education that prepares them for a different type of work than we
have as a reality today.”
Still, there is no single reason these rates have increased.
Economists point to a decline in the teenage pregnancy rate, as well as a
reduction in violent crime among teenagers. Some districts use data systems to
identify students with multiple absences or failed classes so educators can
better help them. And an increasing number of states and districts offer
students more chances to make up failed credits online or in short tutoring
sessions without repeating a whole semester or more.
States also vary widely in diploma requirements. In California, South
Carolina and Tennessee, the authorities have recently eliminated requirements
that students pass exit exams to qualify for a diploma. Alaska, California,
Wisconsin and Wyoming demand far fewer credits to graduate than most
states, according to the Education Commission of the States, although local
school districts may require more.
According to one analysis of requirements for the class of 2014, 32 states
did not require that all graduates take four years of English and math through
Algebra II or its equivalent, which is often defined as the minimum to be
prepared for college.
“Students and their families rely on and trust the high school diploma as a
signal of readiness,” said Alissa Peltzman, the vice president of state policy at
Achieve, a nonprofit that performed the study. “It needs to mean something.
Otherwise, it’s a false promise for thousands of students.”
Over the past decade in California, several large urban districts adopted
coursework guidelines aligned to entrance requirements at the state’s public
universities. Los Angeles initially required that students earn at least a C in
those classes, but the number of students on track to graduate plummeted.
Now grades of D or higher are accepted.
“It’s a push and pull between rigorous standards that are harder to meet,”
said Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of
California, Santa Barbara, “and less rigorous standards that are easier to meet
but don’t necessarily ensure that you know that much.”
In South Carolina, students must take four years of English and math and
three years of social studies and science. Last year, the legislature voted to
eliminate the exit exam. Parents of students with disabilities argued that the
test made it difficult for their children to graduate, while business leaders said
it did not indicate that students were ready for work.
“Quite honestly, it had become very easy, and it didn’t mean a lot,” said
Molly Spearman, the state superintendent of education.
Last year, the legislature required all 11th graders to take a test assessing
college and career readiness, as well as an exam that measured academic skills
needed for most jobs.
The first results, from the ACT college admissions tests, showed that only
about a quarter of students statewide were ready for either collegelevel math
or reading. Just 6 percent of black students and 15 percent of Hispanic
students scored ready for college in math, with only slightly higher rates for
reading. In one poor rural district where most of the students are African-American,
graduation rates have risen to more than 85 percent, yet not one
student scored high enough on the ACT to be deemed ready for college in
reading or math.
Even on simpler tests of the cognitive skills needed for many jobs, fewer
than two-thirds of South Carolina 11th graders could show sufficient skills in
both math and reading.
Here at Berea High School, a rare, racially integrated campus with similar
numbers of African-American, Hispanic and white students, administrators
are proud of the rising graduation rate. Addressing the low scores on the ACT,
administrators said many 11th graders had not yet learned the material
covered when they took the test. And some educators say such tests do not
accurately predict whether students will do well in college or in the workplace
Imari Nicholson, a 17-year-old student at Berea, has expressed interest in
sports therapy or dentistry. After he failed chemistry his junior year, his
counselor reminded him that he would need the course to qualify for a college
program in his chosen fields.
He is retaking it this semester. This time, he is getting an A.
But he said he was not satisfied with his scores on the ACT, which
indicated that he was not yet ready for college. “I expect better of myself,” he