RALEIGH -- Just weeks ago, students across the country packed auditoriums, arenas, and convention centers celebrating K-12 education's hallowed rite of passage: high school graduation. Nationwide, high schools conferred some 3 million diplomas on proud members of the Class of 2011.
This achievement is something to cheer. Nationally, the graduation rate is rising and hovers around 72 percent, according to new numbers from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. North Carolina's graduation rate of 74 percent is higher still.
As more students don cap and gown, what is the value of the diplomas they hold? Are graduates prepared for the modern marketplace or the hallways of higher education?
While earning a high school diploma is important, it does not guarantee a baseline level of knowledge and competencies. Tests evaluating math and reading achievement among public and private high school seniors show most lag behind in both subjects. On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 38 percent of 12th-graders read proficiently; one-fourth were proficient in math.
Employers must address a yawning knowledge and skills gap among new workers. Deficiencies in reading, writing, and math competencies among high school graduates entering the work force in recent years are well-documented and widespread. This is worrisome since new graduates must joust for jobs in what the Economic Policy Institute has labeled "a dire labor market without a safety net." High school graduates under age 25 (not in school) now face a sky-high unemployment rate that exceeds 22 percent.
What about students who opt for higher education? Almost 70 percent of the Class of 2010 enrolled in colleges and universities last fall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
While many freshmen arrive on campus ready for challenging post-secondary course work, quite a few do not. Federal education data show more than one-third of first-year undergraduates in 2007-08 enrolled in a remedial class -- covering material they should have learned in high school. At two-year community colleges, 42 percent of first-year students needed remedial instruction.
Too many high schools are dropping the ball. Many kids today work harder outside the classroom than ever before. It isn't unusual for high-schoolers to be saddled with four or five hours of homework each night. Yet this practice contradicts common-sense research showing that moderate homework may be beneficial, but assigning too much of it backfires and burns kids out.
Instead of drowning kids in homework, we need to work smarter. That involves a lot of things, but the main one should be a focus on rich, core academic content in school. Even in the digital age, kids should know how to read, write, and do math well. And they need to retain these skills through habit and practice. Of course, students need other skills, but there is no substitute for a solid academic foundation.
We also must ensure students master basic competencies before earning diplomas. Twenty-eight states currently (or will soon) make graduation contingent on passing high school exit exams, according to the Center on Education Policy. North Carolina is no longer one of them, having jettisoned in 2010 a state policy requiring students to earn passing scores on end-of-course exams in order to graduate.
That's a mistake. Such a move might inflate graduation rates. But it won't guarantee kids leave high school with the requisite knowledge and skills to transition well into college or work.
Today's high school graduates must make their way -- sooner or later -- in a rapidly evolving marketplace and an unsettled economy. We need to get them ready.
Kristen Blair is a North Carolina Education Alliance Fellow.