Do You Want the Good News Or...

... the less good news? The good news is that this year, 80 percent of students who started 9th grade four years ago, graduated from high school -- that is, graduated on time according to an excellent recently released GradNation report. This is significant progress towards the Department of Education's ambitious goal, a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020. Not only is this good news because of the progress, but also, the rate of progress has been strong. Over the past six years, the number of kids who graduate from high school has grown by 8 percent -- faster than in previous years. And the good news continues. The increase in the overall graduation rate has been driven, principally, by a substantial increase in graduation rates for Latino and African American students -- 15 percent and 9 percent respectively. These changes have been driven by successful policy interventions, a reduction in dropout factories, and an increase in parent and community engagement. But, as the report states, some things haven't changed. In fact, for the past 10 years, while the gap between Latino students and their peers has ameliorated, the gap between African American students and their peers has stayed relatively flat -- roughly 17 percent. So begins the not so good news -- frankly, the bad news.

Last week, NAEP released the latest math and reading scores for 12th graders. Not so good. Twelfth grade math scores have stayed the same since 2009, but, the same means that 74 percent of 12th graders were not performing at grade level. Worse than that, reading scores have stayed the same since 1992. For over 20 years, roughly 60 percent of 12th graders were not reading at grade level. So, of the students who reached the 12th grade, only 40 percent could read at grade level, and only 25 percent reached proficiency in math. These are the kids who likely graduated -- the lucky ones. We know that nine years ago, when they and their peers were in third grade, only 10 to 15 percent were reading on grade level- one of the best predictors of high school graduation. Are they the lucky ones or just a little less unlucky than their peers who likely didn't make it to the 12th grade and beyond.

Those who were not performing on grade level in math and reading by 12th grade, and graduated, entered a world for which they are unprepared -- college, work -- a future that could guarantee a path forward -- and in some cases, out of poverty. As compared to other developed economies, US graduates rank 30th in math and 20th in reading -- rankings that have worsened over the past ten years. Students in the US are starting the race to success behind their peers, or more accurately, those with whom they are competing for secondary education, and ultimately jobs. And, what we know is they were likely already behind by the end of third grade and never caught up.

Pushing towards graduation is a worthy pursuit -- an important and achievable goal. And graduating 80 percent of kids on time -- phenomenal. But with these 12th grade math and reading scores, it does raise the question: What is the quality of these graduates?