ImageI read recently that a teenager from the nation's 50 largest cities has about a 50% chance of graduating high school. This makes you wonder if we're making progress in public education, or whether we're actually slipping backward. The answer is probably more complex than we think. As grandma used to say, "It depends..."

Depends on what? Well. are we talking anecdotes - i.e., specific cases - or statistics? The statistic mentioned above should equal the annual number of graduates from the 50 cities divided by the total number of students who could have graduated. Educators rarely do things simply, so the question of how to count graduates or those eligible to graduate has become something of a national political football. But for our purposes, we'll assume that the figure was calculated straightforwardly.

Even so, it also “depends” on which city. In Mesa, AZ, the graduation rate is 77% – highest of the 50 cities. Detroit had the lowest rate (25%). Four cities, including Detroit, had graduation rates under 40%. The District of Columbia’s rate was 58%.

Graduation standards vary, nationwide, so a “graduate” is not a precise quantity. Is today’s grad what he was in grandpa’s time? Or even in my time? Probably not. My grandpa graduated in 1901 from a small high school in Schuylkill County, PA. I still have his algebra book – Milne’s High School Algebra (1892). Topics like the Binomial Theorem, imaginary numbers, progressions, permutations and combinations would mystify many students today. Grandpa never went to college. He still knew algebra in the 1950s, when I was studying it. (Poll your 40-something neighbors to see if any have ever heard of the Binomial Theorem.)

That aside, if you put a child in the Detroit schools, is his chance of graduating only 25%? Gross statistics tend to blur situations. Again, it “depends” – on where the student comes from, who he is, and what his family is like: i.e., their ethnicity, background, immigration status, attitudes toward education, etc. If the student is white, from a literate, two-parent middle-class family that values learning, his chance of graduating should be high. If his family recently emigrated from a Hispanic country, or if he/she is an inner-city black, his/her graduation chances will be materially lower – indeed, the rate among those ethnic groups in Detroit is below 25%.

How do schools compare to the past? Grandpop still knew algebra in his 70s, and I know the calculus, but these are anecdotes, not data. My fifth grade class contained several boys who should have been in the eighth grade. No particular effort was made to help them. They probably never graduated. Today they would be “learning disabled”, and schools would make every effort to push them forward. Maybe they still wouldn’t graduate. So are schools better or worse? Anecdotes aren’t enough to tell us.

There are some objective data, however - e.g., national standardized tests that measure student achievement at various grade-levels. They enable uniform comparisons of students from anywhere. Sometimes they are educators' only tool for assessing student ability correctly.

Even in my day such tests could spring surprises. A girl our family knew was a withdrawn, low-achieving eighth-grader. The schools didn't say "retarded", but they had treated her that way. Yet she achieved the highest score on the Iowa achievement tests ever recorded in her school. Officials checked every which way to see if there was a mistake or if she somehow had cheated. But the result was genuine. Schools had misread her poor achievement for years. Without that standardized test, her true capabilities might have remained unrecognized. She went on to a fine, productive technical career.

Similar situations probably still occur, but one suspects that they more frequently go the other way. A student looks OK, but standardized tests show that he/she is deficient in critical skill areas. Reading is often the culprit, as children can slip through various subjects without reading well. Math-deficiency is harder to conceal, since mathematics is like a building whose courses of bricks are the accumulating years of education. Eventually, the walls cannot go higher if the lower courses are too weak.

One would think every educator would welcome objective measures of student achievement, but one would be wrong. Standardized tests can embarrass schools that have degraded curricula and inflated grades. Standardized tests reveal the truth. Some school districts want to eliminate the tests entirely, claiming they are “elitist” or not suitable for a “diverse” school population.

For example, educators have complained bitterly about the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing requirements – especially about the accountability pegged to the results. Teachers also say NCLB was improperly funded. They become enraged when I ask why extra funding should be provided for teaching kids how to read. Aren’t schools supposed to be doing that anyway? They insist that the testing is an “unnatural intrusion into real teaching”.

The public education establishment is also in full cry about the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) – an objective measure of student aptitude in language and math used for generations to assess students’ readiness for college-level work. The SAT can be most inconvenient for schools that have pumped up graduation numbers with cheapened high school diplomas. Honor-roll students with low SAT scores expose what their schools have been doing (or not doing). Enraged parents realize, too late, that they have been duped about their children’s scholastic achievement. Hell hath no fury like parents who find that their child is headed for a Starbucks Coffee career instead of top colleges.

To counter this embarrassment, a movement has arisen that claims any test producing disparate results among ethnic or racial groups is, by definition, racist or elitist. In 2001 the University of California’s president recommended dropping the SAT as an admission requirement at their eight campuses, saying the test is an unfair measure of students' abilities. His recommendation was not adopted, but it will certainly return.

Absent the SAT, no objective measure will be left to gauge high school graduates’ capabilities. Only grades from local schools will be available. The temptation to inflate those grades will be irresistible. Indeed, it already is.You don’t need an Ed.D to see how damaging this can be to educational integrity. Some New Jersey medical students complained when they learned that minority students were receiving exam questions in advance. The dean explained that the school could not afford to let the minority students fail.

Yes, this is just an “anecdote”, not data. But who wants a doctor educated so carelessly? Or an airline pilot? Or an accountant? Cash registers that calculate change can protect merchants from math-challenged clerks. But there is no similar device to protect us from doctors or pharmacists whose graduation made school administrators feel socially righteous. Losing objective standards is not a step forward.