What happens when high school standards aren’t quite high enough? In my experience, you get a reality check after graduating.
I graduated high school as valedictorian of my graduating class, captain of the swim team and student body president. You might think, “What a smart, hardworking cookie!” But I won’t pretend this was a major feat—my classes were relatively undemanding. It didn’t take much to be pretty successful and devote a lot of my time to non-academic pursuits. And I just confidently assumed college would be the same way.
Going in to college, I tried the winning strategy I had used in high school: attend class, study a little on the side and maintain a robust extracurricular schedule. I recognized pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to work quite so well.
One day I woke up and realized not everything was going to be as easy as high school. I had to face higher, real-life expectations and work really hard if I wanted to reach my goals and get back to the top of the class. The demands of college were much higher, and I am grateful for that because those demands prepared me to go onto the next challenge and the next, ultimately reaching my goal to graduate from Harvard Law School.
The process wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
Right now, it seems there are too many kids walking out of school—just like I did—with a high school diploma but unprepared for the challenges and opportunities they will face. And this crushing reality can have serious consequences for students.
For many students, the immediate consequence is remediation. We know that nationally 50 percent of students entering two-year colleges are placed in remediation. Remediation is costly—both in time and cash. Annually, first-year college students spend $7 billion to learn what they should have mastered in high school.
For other students, the consequence is joblessness. Many students who go from high school directly to the workforce are unable to find jobs because there is a growing skills gap in our country. In 2013, The Manufacturing Institute reported that there were 600,000 vacant American manufacturing jobs due to the lack of qualified applicants.
There has been a disconnect between school and the real world, resulting in serious negative consequences for young adults. Too many states have had low expectations for K-12 student learning, misleading parents and teachers into believing kids are performing better than they actually are. What’s more, low expectations can mislead students and created unnecessary challenges.
What does all this mean for the children in your state? How can you know if your state is preparing students to graduate ready for real-world challenges?
Every state draws a line—also called the proficiency cut score—on their annual assessment to determine if a student has demonstrated mastery of the subject matter. This proficiency cut score varies state by state. If the proficiency cut score is too low, passing rates are artificially high and students can suffer in the ways mentioned above.
States across the country are in the process of reviewing their proficiency cut scores. Many have already raised their proficiency expectations. Others need to take this crucial step if they hope to create an education system where every child masters the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the next grade—and most importantly—after high school.
Here is what you can do.
First, visit WhyProficiencyMatters.com to learn how well your state is preparing children for the future. Then contact your school leaders, education officials and local representatives to share these facts and help them understand the consequences of this issue.
My wake-up call spurred me into action, rather than sending me down a path of frustration and unfulfilled potential. By preparing our students sooner, we can give more children the chance to graduate from high school equipped to pursue their dreams. And we can start by setting high academic expectations today.