PRI’s Senior Director of the Center for Education and Koret Senior Fellow in Education Lance Izumi contributed an article to the Heritage Foundation’s 2017 Index of Culture and Opportunity.
Over the past several years, the U.S. high school graduation rate has climbed significantly. That increase, however, is not necessarily due to better performance by our nation’s public schools or to higher achievement by our students. Rather, across America, states and local school districts are lowering the bar for earning a high school diploma, which—lo and behold—raises the graduation rate.
According to the latest data, an all-time high of more than eight out of 10 U.S. high school students graduated four years after starting the ninth grade. Yet that rate is deceiving. States have been lowering their bars for graduation for years.
Back in 2003, for example, New York reduced the testing requirements for high school students to graduate, and state officials have continued to ease up on the pedal in subsequent years. Recent decisions by New York’s Board of Regents made it possible for students to graduate even though they had not passed all five of the required Regents exams. The New York Times observed that the resulting increase in the graduation rate “made it hard to know whether schools were doing better or students were simply clearing a lower bar.”
In California, Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers eliminated the state high school exit exam requirement, and presto! More students graduated. In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, 1,400 high school seniors in the class of 2015 had failed to pass the exam, but when the requirement was removed, they received their diplomas and the district’s graduation rate rose by four percentage points. The Los Angeles school board also reduced the graduation requirement that students pass college-prep courses with a C grade, allowing them to pass with a D instead.