Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and even President Obama have done a victory dance about the “historic” rise in the graduation rate, but Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute says that it is the “phoniest statistic” in American education.


Pondiscio writes:


According to federal data released late last year, and dutifully trumpeted ever since (including in last night’s State of the Union address), the nation’s high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high, with 82 percent of the Class of 2014 earning a diploma. “As a result, many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family,” crowed then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.


Isn’t it pretty to think so?


In fact, Secretary Duncan might be right for now. Confidence and good will are baked into a high school diploma. It is an academic promissory note that signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency. But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.


Regarding the recent spike in graduation rates, good luck figuring out what it stands for. Not improved student proficiency, certainly. There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.


Read the article to see the many links.


He adds:


To be sure, there are very good reasons for credit recovery: We should want students who fall behind on credits due to illness, pregnancy, or some other disruption to have the opportunity to catch up and graduate. Neither the child nor society benefits if we place barriers in the way of graduation. But problems with credit recovery are legion. There’s no clear definition of what it is, no good or consistent data on how often it’s used, and no way of knowing whether it’s academically rigorous or merely a failsafe to paper over failure and drag unprepared kids across the finish line to boost graduation rates.


The potential for abuse is rampant, whether through less-than-rigorous credit recovery schemes or (as in many of the cases detailed in the New York Post) a teacher holding his nose and passing a student for the sake of expedience. Has the student earned her diploma, or is she merely being handed a diploma as a parting gift?


The even bigger problem is that we might just be stuck with it. Refusing to confer even a debased, potentially meaningless credential on an eighteen-year-old is tantamount to publicly pronouncing him a failure—unfit for post-secondary education, entry-level employment, or military service. As one child advocate lamented to Chalkbeat this week, “Panera Bread asks if you have a high school diploma. What are the options for these kids?”


So here is the dilemma:


In years past, young people without a high school diploma could sell get a job, and often a job in a factory with decent wages. But no more. The factories have been outsources, and most employers expect a high school diploma, which they use as a proxy for “shows up for work every day.” Thus, the student without a high school diploma may be permanently unemployed or consigned to menial labor. As states ratchet up the standards for high school graduation, as they base them on end of course exams in Algebra and other tough subjects, more young people will drop out or have diplomas that signify attendance. Face it: the push for higher standards debases the high school diploma. The alternative is to have large numbers of young people who are permanently unemployed and unemployable.