Education Matters: Graduation — A Rose by Any Other Name?


Whatever you do, don’t call the event I attended a few weeks ago a graduation. My eldest daughter completed eighth grade at our large neighborhood middle school and has been “promoted” into the ninth grade.

When I, erroneously it turned out, referred to the event we were buying a dress for as a graduation, my daughter corrected me.

“We’re not supposed to call it that,” she cautioned.

The “Promotion Celebration” postcard invitation that came in the mail confirmed this. “This is NOT a graduation,” the card stated emphatically.

When my daughter and her younger sister completed elementary school, they had graduations, complete with tasseled caps, diplomas and cake. But each time, the principal emphasized to the gathering of fifth-graders and parents, “This is the first of several graduations we expect you to achieve.”

Could premature use of the word graduation truly deter students from completing the final four years of secondary school? Some education professionals seem to think so.

“Completing middle school and promoting to high school is part of the path to high school graduation,” my daughter’s middle school principal told me, adding that the choice of words for the ceremony is deliberate.

At a high-school graduation party in a nearby town, I talked to a woman who works at an area middle school. Her school changed the name of its ceremony in part because some families attached a disproportionate significance to this milestone. “They hired stretch limos,” she said.

According to the Department of Education, U.S. high school graduation rates have reached a nearly 40-year high of approximately 75% (rates tend to vary, depending on which report you read, in part because some states have adjusted their method of calculating graduation rates. The school year 2010-2011 was the first time all states used a common measuring method).

Though these figures are encouraging, racial disparity in graduation rates, the so called “achievement gap,” continues to be troubling. In my home state of Washington, there is at least 15% difference in graduation rates between whites and minorities.

To put in more personal terms, one out of four kids whose milk cartons you helped open in kindergarten will not graduate from high school. Chances are, he or she will not be Caucasian.

Still, the past decade has seen noteworthy improvements in graduation rates for minority students, particularly Latinos and African Americans, who have significantly lessened the gap with their white counterparts. Native American students continue to languish.

Because the future for those without a high-school diploma is troubling, particularly during an economic downturn, you can expect to hear more about “dropout recovery” programs, including the one-stop “re-engagement centers” developed in cities such as Boston and Portland, Oregon. The General Education Development (GED) test, which has long been another path to a high-school credential, has been revised and will be available online.

The Common Core standards, which have been implemented in 46 states, with Washington State reaching full implementation in the 2014-15 school year, will be carefully scrutinized. Do they add more academic rigor? How will faltering students fare, given the new state assessments conforming to higher learning standards?

Will charter schools succeed in retaining potential dropouts?

A few weeks prior to promotion we attended a school presentation entitled “High School and Beyond . . . Creating Your Own Destiny” with speakers and resources painstakingly pulled together by the tireless school counselor. The event was not well attended (it was a rare sunny June evening in Seattle) and I wish it had been.

Among the tools we were given was a user-friendly pamphlet on college and career readiness. The most inspiring speaker was Susanna Cerasuolo, a teacher and guidance counselor who has developed a free online resource to help students navigate getting ready for college and career.

I didn’t cry at my daughter’s “promotion” ceremony, the way I did when she graduated from elementary school and preschool, but I, and she, have taken note of one very important and daunting fact: It all counts from now on. Every grade, every extra-curricular activity, every choice she makes will impact her life.

There are resources available to help. I hope she, and her cohorts of the class of 2017 throughout the U.S., make use of them.

246Alison Krupnick is a former world-traveling diplomat, turned minivan-driving mom and writer. She chronicles this transformation in her book Ruminations from the Minivan, Musings from a World Grown Large, then Small. Her writing has been published in Harvard Review; Brain, Child; Seattle magazine and a variety of news and trade publications and literary journals and anthologies. You can find more of her education reporting on and enjoy sweet and savory moments and recipes on her blog Slice of Mid-Life. Have an education question or suggestion? Let her know!

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