The educational establishment hates the push for standards and accountability as much as teenagers hate it when parents barge into their rooms. Both prefer to live in the pigsty unencumbered. Both resent being made to clean it up.
No wonder. Change is never easy, and real change is often met with kicking and screaming. That’s what we’re seeing, just as the standards and accountability movement - embodied in No Child Left Behind - is producing results.
Today’s high school graduates are more likely to be academically qualified to attend college than those of a decade ago, before the accountability movement took hold. And we can expect to see more progress if No Child Left Behind expands to high schools.
That’s not to say things are just fine. About three of every 10 students who enter a public high school eventually drop out. And many high school graduates are ineligible for college because the requirements to graduate from high school are not aligned with the requirements for college admission.
Less than half of public high school graduates in the class of 2002 met the course requirements and were eligible to enroll in a four-year college. Given that the graduation rate was only 71 percent, this means a mere 34 percent of all students who entered ninth grade ended up graduating ready for college.
Even so, these low numbers actually reflect progress. While the high school graduation rate has hardly budged since 1991, the percentage of students who leave high school college-ready has increased by about 9 percentage points since 1991. Thus, schools are graduating about the same percentage of students, but those who graduate are more likely to have taken the courses required to go on to college.
Students are more college-ready because learning expectations and high school graduation requirements are rising. Responding to reformers’ concerns, many states increased the difficulty of their curricula and began requiring students to demonstrate mastery of more difficult material before graduating.
This movement culminated in No Child Life Behind. It consolidated in federal law the increased accountability that most states had already implemented, and forced the holdout states to follow suit.
Some critics worried that increasing standards would push low-performing students out of school. But this dire prediction has not come true. The same percentage of students graduate from high school, but because of higher standards, today’s diplomas are more likely to open the door to college.
Even with this improvement, college is still beyond the reach of almost two-thirds of all high school students, either because they don’t graduate or because they don’t take the courses required for college. Until these standards match, students will continue to graduate from high school unable to advance to college. Expanding No Child Left Behind to include high schools is an important step in closing this gap.