08/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Are the Rising Graduation Rates Real?

The city boasts that nearly two-thirds of high school students graduated on time in 2008, a dramatic increase from 2002 when barely half graduated. But are the standards for graduating so low that the diplomas are meaningless, as skeptics claim?

Yes and no. The rising graduation rates reflect real gains, with real kids walking across the stage to get real diplomas. Many of these new graduates entered high school reading at a fifth or sixth grade level, and the fact that they stayed in school and got any diploma at all is an enormous victory. As a new report by the Center for New York City Affairs demonstrates, (disclosure: I am one of the authors) dozens of new, small schools opened in recent years have been successful in engaging students who might otherwise have dropped out.

Still, the skeptics are correct that these diplomas don't represent what most middle class parents would want for their children. As the report says:

Because a huge proportion of students arrive in ninth grade with the skills that are two, three or even four years below grade level, the new schools must focus intensely on helping them catch up. A large proportion of the graduates of the new schools so far have received only a "local diploma" that represents the bare minimum of requirements set by the state-- standards that officials and academic experts generally agree are well below those needed to succeed in college.

Students who receive "local diplomas" have passed a Regents exam that shows basic understanding of algebra - which middle class children generally master in 8th or 9th grade. These students have passed a Regents biology exam generally taken in 9th grade and English and history exams that most middle class students take in 10th or 11th grade. So, yes, the schools deserve credit for keeping needy, vulnerable kids in school and yes, any diploma is better than no diploma. At the same time, the city has a long way to go before we can be proud of our high school graduation rate.