While the problems of low achievement and poor high-school graduation rates are clear, however, their solutions are not. The reformist governors, for example, want to require all students to take a college-preparatory curriculum and to meet more rigorous standards for graduation. These steps will very likely increase the dropout rate, not reduce it.
To understand why, you have to consider what the high schools are dealing with. When American students arrive as freshmen, nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level. Equally large numbers are ill prepared in mathematics, science and history.
It is hardly fair to blame high schools for the poor skills of their entering students. If students start high school without the basic skills needed to read, write and solve mathematics problems, then the governors should focus on strengthening the standards of their states’ junior high schools.
And that first year of high school is often the most important one – many students who eventually drop out do so after becoming discouraged when they can’t earn the credits to advance beyond ninth grade. Ninth grade is often referred to by educators as a “parking lot.” This is because social promotion – the endemic practice of moving students up to the next grade whether they have earned it or not – comes to a crashing halt in high school.