If High School Seniors Can’t Read Their Diplomas, Should They Be Allowed to Graduate?

High school graduation rates hit a record high, but are students prepared for what lies ahead?

High school graduation rates

High school graduation rates are hitting record highs, but reading and math proficiency are lower. (Photo: Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Jenny Inglee is a Los Angeles-based journalist and the Education Editor at TakePart.

Good news! High school graduation rates are the highest they've been since the 1970s.

According to the Department of Education, 3.1 million students earned their diploma in 2010, and 78 percent of these kids finished school on time. The closest we've gotten to this number was during the 1975-76 school year, when 75 percent of students graduated on time.

The report also calculated the dropout rate. During the 2009-10 school year, 514, 238 public school students dropped out of high school. The dropout rate was 3.4 percent that year, less than what it was a year before. It was at a rate of 4.1 percent during the 2008-09 academic year.

While high school graduation rates increase and the decrease in dropout rates show promise, you may want to hold off on celebrating. Although more kids are graduating, they are not as proficient in math and reading as they should be.

Twenty-six percent of 12th graders are below the basic reading level. This means these kids do not have the skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities. Also, in comparison to other countries, the U.S. is ranked 14th in literacy and 25th in math.

Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics, says, "When you look at our 12th graders on the long-term trend—not just in poverty—but overall, [math and reading] scores are essentially flat at the 12th grade level."

They've seen some improvement in reading and math proficiency for kids in fourth and eighth grade, but Buckley says, this is unfortunately not the case for 17 year olds.

There is definitely a very sizable percentage of kids who are leaving high school and are really not ready for any level of post-secondary education.

The 2008 National Assessment of Education Progress shows that, "the overall average mathematics scores for nine and 13 year olds were higher in 2008 when compared to all previous assessments. However, there was no significant change in the scores of 17 year olds in comparison to either 2004 or 1973."

Cyclically," Buckley says, "you're getting kids maybe more likely to graduate on time. But in the long run, it's not clear, at least from those tests they are assessing, that there's much change."

Looking at these stats in terms of college readiness, Buckley says, "No matter how you measure it, there is definitely a very sizable percentage of kids who are leaving high school and are really not ready for any level of post-secondary education."

Our system as a whole, he explains, must "do a better job of figuring out what kids need to get out of their first 12 or 13 years of education and make sure they all get it."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did not address math and literacy proficiency when referencing the record high school graduation rates, but like Buckley, he said there is much more that needs to be done to ensure kids get the education they deserve. He said in statement on January 22:

It’s promising that high school graduation rates are up for all ethnic groups in 2010 -- especially for Hispanics, whose graduation rate has jumped almost 10 points since 2006. At the same time, our high school dropout rate is still unsustainably high for a knowledge-based economy and still unacceptably high in our African-American, Latino, and Native-American communities.

As President Obama said in yesterday’s Inaugural address, our journey to equality of opportunity is not yet complete. But as this report shows, we are making progress in our schools toward living up to the American creed of equal opportunity for all.

What do you feel needs to change to increase literacy rates and math proficiency in our schools? Share your thoughts in comments.

Jenny is the Education Editor at TakePart. She has been writing for TakePart since 2009 and previously worked in film and television development. She has taught English in Vietnam and tutors homeless children in Los Angeles. Email Jenny | @jennyinglee | TakePart.com

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