Kentucky’s Dirty Little High School Graduation Secret

I have always loved this time of year. Commencement exercises are our opportunity to give public recognition and affirmation of the academic accomplishments of scholars. These rites of passage are significant, not only for graduates, but for their schools/institutions, families, and communities. Whether it is a ceremony celebrating the successful completion of elementary school, middle school, high school, or college, we pause to celebrate what graduates have accomplished and we look forward with optimism about what is to come for them.

Unfortunately, however, I have now come to the place where high school graduation in Kentucky saddens me. It is true that Kentucky ranks in the top five states in the South and the top ten states in the nation in graduation rates. With a state high school graduation rate of 88%, more Kentucky students are graduating high school today than ever before, and that’s positive. The results of education and workforce research are clear; having a high school diploma will very likely lead graduates to greater employment and economic outcomes than than peers who do not earn high school diplomas. But it is Kentucky’s dirty little secret about high school graduation that troubles me so much. While 88% of our students are graduating high school, many of the students we award diplomas to are neither prepared to be successful in a two-year or four-year college nor in a job with a decent wage, and we know it when we hand them the diploma. In fact, we publicize it.

In 2016, 44,756 Kentucky seniors graduated from high school. About 32% of seniors receiving a high school diploma were classified as neither ready for college nor a career. The figures are even more troubling in some school districts. In Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), of the 6,108 seniors who received high school diplomas in 2016, nearly 37% of those graduates were deemed neither ready for college nor a career. Of the 2,314 high school graduates in Fayette County, about 39% of 2016 graduates were deemed neither ready for college nor a career. In sum, while Kentucky’s high school graduation rate is now among the highest in the nation, we graduate extraordinary percentages of students who we know are not well-prepared to pursue anything meaningful after receiving their diploma.

Kentucky’s dirty little graduation secret is that while record numbers and percentages of Kentucky students are receiving high school diplomas, meeting the minimum standards for graduation in Kentucky is currently a pretty low bar. And while the state does administer end-of-course assessments in a few high school subject areas, most students fail those assessments, receive passing grades from their teachers in the courses, and go on to receive their high school diplomas without a problem. In 2016, only 42% of Kentucky high schoolers posted a passing score on the Algebra II end-of-course assessment, and only 38% of students passed the Biology end-of-course assessment. Students fared slightly better in English II (56.5% passed) and U.S. History (59.2% passed), but even scores in English and history should raise significant questions about Kentucky students’ mastery of academic content at the high school level.

To be clear, I want Kentucky to continue to post high school graduation rates that lead the nation, but our high graduation rate is meaningless if we continue to issue diplomas to students we know to not be well-prepared for careers and/or postsecondary success. Our minimum standards for high school graduation are minimal and not aligned with what we know to be minimum standards for preparing students for success in a career or at a postsecondary institution. Frankly, I would rather post a high school graduation rate that’s lower if we can assure graduates, their families, postsecondary institutions, and employers that a Kentucky high school diploma is truly meaningful. Currently, I cannot recommend putting much stock in a Kentucky diploma.

We must improve.

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