Let’s just stop pussyfooting around and say it out loud: The “historic” peak in the country’s high school graduation rate is bullshit.

According to federal data released late last year, and dutifully trumpeted ever since (including in last night’s State of the Union address), the nation’s high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high, with 82 percent of the Class of 2014 earning a diploma. “As a result, many more students will have a better chance of going to college, getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family,” crowed then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

In fact, Secretary Duncan might be right for now. Confidence and good will are baked into a high school diploma. It is an academic promissory note that signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency. But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.

Regarding the recent spike in graduation rates, good luck figuring out what it stands for. Not improved student proficiency, certainly. There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.

A recent New York Times report looked at a South Carolina school district where only one in ten students were ready for college-level work in reading based on their ACT scores; an abysmal one in fourteen were ready for freshman math. An editorial a few days later blasted “counterfeit” high school diplomas, pointing the finger at states with “weak curriculums and graduation requirements that make high school diplomas useless.” To be fair, not everything about the sudden rise in graduation rates smells funny. Motoko Rich’s report notes that declining teenage pregnancy rates, reductions in violent crime, and better data collection to identify chronically absent students and those at risk of failure have surely contributed. Heavens be praised. But, she added, “an increasing number of states and districts offer students more chances to make up failed credits online or in short tutoring sessions without repeating a whole semester or more.”

Right. And this is the point at which graduation rates—and what they say about the value of a diploma—begin to sink into the dark swamp of “credit recovery.”

Take the example of Baltimore. A recent news release from Baltimore City Public Schools trumpets the district’s fifth straight year of gains: In 2010, 66.7 percent of high school students graduated within five years of entering ninth grade; as of 2014, it was 74.9 percent. The city couldn’t have achieved that stunning rate of success without the (even more stunning) 36.5 percent of students who graduated via the “High School Bridge for Academic Validation Plan.” Baltimore’s press release doesn’t mention that fewer than half of Baltimore’s freshly minted high school graduates passed the Maryland State High School Assessments (HSAs).

In New York City, graduation rates are also at record levels, hitting 70 percent for the first time—a dramatic twenty-four-point rise in a decade. Schools chancellor Carmen Farina described the results as “important progress,” but she noted that “there is so much more to do to ensure equity and excellence in classrooms across all five boroughs.” You can say that again. Gothamites have not forgotten the New York Post’s reports on the “EZ-Pass” scandal—a steady drumbeat of stories documenting grade-fixing and phony summer school programs. One student even wrote a front-page article describing how she earned credit she didn’t deserve for a government exam she failed, but needed for graduation.

And advocates for school closure should take note: A new report from the New York City Independent Budget Office casts doubt on the value of diplomas conferred upon students from city schools slated for closure in the Bloomberg era. These pupils were more likely to have earned class credits through credit recovery and to have scored at exactly the cutoff point on state Regents exams—a red flag, to put it bluntly.

To be sure, there are very good reasons for credit recovery: We should want students who fall behind on credits due to illness, pregnancy, or some other disruption to have the opportunity to catch up and graduate. Neither the child nor society benefits if we place barriers in the way of graduation. But problems with credit recovery are legion. There’s no clear definition of what it is, no good or consistent data on how often it’s used, and no way of knowing whether it’s academically rigorous or merely a failsafe to paper over failure and drag unprepared kids across the finish line to boost graduation rates.

The potential for abuse is rampant, whether through less-than-rigorous credit recovery schemes or (as in many of the cases detailed in the New York Post) a teacher holding his nose and passing a student for the sake of expedience. Has the student earned her diploma, or is she merely being handed a diploma as a parting gift?

The even bigger problem is that we might just be stuck with it. Refusing to confer even a debased, potentially meaningless credential on an eighteen-year-old is tantamount to publicly pronouncing him a failure—unfit for post-secondary education, entry-level employment, or military service. As one child advocate lamented to Chalkbeat this week, “Panera Bread asks if you have a high school diploma. What are the options for these kids?”

Look, it’s not a bad thing that graduation rates are up. There may yet be a pony at the bottom of this prodigious pile. But without proficiency measures validating the diplomas we’re handing out like participation trophies after a youth soccer match, we’re flying blind. In the era of ESSA, when every state is on the hook to define accountability for itself, demonstrating the legitimacy of credit recovery—and the value of a high school diploma more generally—is an area ripe for reform and transparency. If states and districts want to claim credit for a meteoric rise in graduation rates, the onus is on them to prove that their diplomas are worth more than the paper they’re printed on.

Until then, leave those self-congratulatory press releases in your desk. 

Policy Priority:

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He is also a senior advisor to Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of high-performing charter schools based in Harlem, New York. He writes and speaks extensively on education and education-reform issues, with an emphasis on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education. After twenty years in…

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