01/31/2013 11:38 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Collateral Damage: What's Behind the Rise in High School Graduation Rates

High school graduation rates are rising in the U.S., but so is the need for college remediation. A new report from the Department of Education finds high school graduation rates are at their highest level since 1974. According to the report, during the 2009-10 school year, 78.2 percent of high school students nationwide graduated on time, a significant increase from the 73.4 percent recorded in 2005-6. The report shows that graduation rates were up for all ethnic groups in 2010, and that the rate for Hispanic students has jumped almost 10 points since 2006.

Dig a little deeper and you'll find evidence of collateral damage -- the need for remedial education for high school graduates is also on the rise. Put more simply the "meaning" of the diploma has declined. More students start college unable to read, or perform math skills, at the college freshman level.

I'm not suggesting that we're intentionally reducing standards to raise graduation rates, but that's the unintended consequence of many current teaching and learning practices.

National college persistence and graduation rates are shockingly low. For instance, for every 10 college freshmen seeking a two-year associate degree, half need remediation, and 10 percent of those freshmen attain the AA degree in three years. A Harvard Graduate School of Education report found that 32 percent of students graduate high school prepared for college.

According to the State of Colorado's EdNews Colorado, the percentage of first-time high school graduates placed into at least one remedial course was 31.8 percent in 2010-2011, up from 28.6 percent in 2009-10. The largest number of students needed remediation in math.

The need for remediation has significant financial consequences. Remedial education cost the state of Colorado $22 million in 2010-2011 and students, or their parents paid $24 million for remedial courses -- some of which was also covered by state funds. Colorado Lt. Governor Joe Garcia said, "It's not a surprise we see remediation rates increasing, given the changing demographics of K-12 students and an emphasis on getting more students into higher education."

The national education focus is on improving our global competitiveness and a major multi-year initiative -- adopted by 45 states, the District of Columbia and four territories -- is implementing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) . According to former Colorado Governor Roy Romer, Senior Advisor to The College Board, "Common standards ensure that every child across the country is getting the best possible education, no matter where a child lives or what their background."

These standards are designed to be robust and relevant to "what takes place after high school," reflecting the knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in college and careers. The literacy standards, for example, require that students become critical readers, not only of fiction, but also informational content. Students also need to become writers adept at research, analysis and argumentation. The intent is that educators integrate literacy into every discipline.

A critical question facing school districts all over the country is: How do we, as educators, turn these new standards into compelling, effective instruction?

The CCSS value relevant and rigorous learning -- the kind that motivates students to become innovative learners. The components of Deeper Learning -- to think critically and solve complex problems; communicate effectively; work collaboratively; master core academic content and learn how to learn -- can be interwoven as a CCSS framework. When students experience relevancy in what and how they learn, they are more engaged and the learning sticks.

I wish every high school diploma handed out meant that a young woman or young man was ready to pursue post-secondary paths of his or her choosing. College, and especially expensive four-year university programs, is not the only way in which our youth can succeed in life. Aspiring to Deeper Learning as the ubiquitous educational experience moves our country in a truly positive direction. Let's make a high school diploma mean something. And let's continue to put pressure on college programs to be more relevant and engaging. For every headline on graduation rate increases, let's also insist that the progress on reducing remediation rates be included. That's the kind of accountability and transparency that places students at the center.