This is graduation season, when an anticipated 3.3 million high school seniors will cross a stage and receive an elegant sheet of paper that announces their completion of an important phase of formal education. For the last few years, public school districts have proudly announced their increasing graduation rates: In the 2013-14 academic year, the nation achieved its highest-ever rate of 82 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
But for a significant number of those young adults, the diploma may not mean very much. They still won’t have the competence in mathematics and reading to master highly-skilled jobs at high-tech factories or to negotiate college classes without remediation. They are also not ready to win the competition of a globalized labor force.
The proof of these educational deficiencies lies in the scores from college entrance exams, the surging demand for college remedial courses and tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The most recent NAEP scores, released last week, revealed that the average performance of high school seniors in math had fallen between 2013 and 2015. This suggests the gains in graduation rates have been purchased with lower academic standards.
That’s why the opt-out movement — largely fueled by teachers’ unions — is so counterproductive. There’s no doubt that some school systems have administered far too many tests, turning the classroom experience into a rote learn-by-numbers exercise. But unless students take a few strategic standardized exams, it’s nearly impossible to judge their actual academic achievement.
That’s especially true of children from less-affluent homes and children of color. They are often stuck in schools with insufficient resources, poorly trained teachers and overwhelmed principals. The As and Bs that many of those students will receive on report card after report card are hardly a reliable barometer.
Given that, the nation’s leading civil rights organizations are wary of the opt-out movement and its dismissal of tests and transparency. The data measure a key indicator: the achievement gap between children of color — historically consigned to inferior schools — and their wealthier white peers.