Much has been said lately about the widespread failings of American high schools. Soaring enrollments in remedial college courses and a labor market glutted with ill-prepared workers only point back to a breakdown in secondary education. And a quartet of reports released last week will do little to dispel the view that high schools are falling down on the job. Here’s an overview of what the studies found and what they mean.

    * The American College Testing Program (ACT) released “Reading Between the Lines,” assessing the level of reading preparedness among entering college freshmen. They found that only 51 percent of 2005 ACT-tested high school graduates were ready to handle the reading requirements of a typical first-year college course – the lowest level in more than a decade. This may help explain why only 63 percent of college freshmen in our country go on to graduate within 6 years.
    * And that’s if they are lucky enough to make it to college in the first place. A new survey by Civic Enterprises (and commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) highlights some startling findings about student retention in high schools. “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” surveying nearly 500 high school dropouts, found that almost 50 percent left school because they felt their classes were boring and irrelevant. In addition, a majority of dropouts indicated that their schools did little to motivate them to work hard. This study turns on its head the notion that students drop out of school simply because they cannot make the grade academically.
    * Also last week, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI) presented its “Annual Dropout Event Report” to the State Board of Education. According to this study, there was a miniscule dip between 2002-03 and 2004-05 (from 4.78 to 4.74) in the percentage of 9th-12th grade students dropping out of school in a given year. However, these numbers reveal little about who really finishes high school, since DPI data do not follow one group of ninth graders throughout all four years of high school. By way of contrast, the well-respected Manhattan Institute’s high school graduation rate for North Carolina is just 63 percent – a statistic that’s hard to reconcile with DPI’s misleading data.
    * Yet another report, while not focusing exclusively on high school problems or performance, will do little to allay concerns about secondary education. Education Trust’s publication, “Primary Progress, Secondary Challenge: A State-by-State Look at Student Achievement Patterns,” also released last week, looked at state assessment results in reading and math between 2003 and 2005. Most states made academic gains and narrowed achievement gaps in the elementary grades. High schools, however, struggled to close gaps between poor and minority students and their White and more affluent counterparts. The report indicated, “No matter how one looks at the data, there are signs of progress for our elementary school students and cause for concern about our high schools.”

Adding attention to these reports, came the letter to state education leaders from Judge Manning threatening to close sixteen high schools if poor student performance continues for another year.

Clearly, it’ll take more than a quick fix to remedy the problems facing our nation’s high schools. Where do we start? As these studies indicate, high schools need a dramatic overhaul – implementing stringent reading requirements and doing far more to motivate and retain students. But in the end, even that won’t be enough if we don’t break up our monopoly system of education through market-based reforms like choice and competition. No one disputes the fact that our current system is failing adolescents. Isn’t it time we did something about it?