The governors of 45 states agreed Sunday to develop common measures for establishing high school graduation rates, a step they said will help achieve their larger goal of making high school rigorous enough to help prepare students for an increasingly competitive global economy.
Governors hailed the agreement not so much for its ability to increase the rigor of U.S. high schools but as a further sign of the commitment of state leaders to tackle a problem they say could undermine the country's future.
The agreement aims to replace a hodgepodge of measuring systems with a uniform standard that will allow parents, students, educators and politicians to compare state graduation rates. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), the outgoing chairman of the National Governors Association, said that with uniform data on graduation rates and eventually dropout rates, states will have tools to help them track and target efforts to push all students to graduate from high school.
Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), the incoming NGA chairman, said the current system of measuring graduation rates allows states to disguise poor performance -- as if, he said, some basketball teams were shooting at eight-foot hoops when others are shooting at the standard 10-foot hoops. Calling existing data "meaningless," he said, "We're going to be able to honestly know how we're doing in comparison to other states."
Education experts say a key predictor of whether students eventually will graduate from college is not race or economic circumstances but whether they completed a rigorous course of study in high school. Warner has used his year as NGA chairman to spearhead the initiative to raise awareness of the weaknesses of U.S. high schools and establish higher standards and more difficult curricula.
At the governors' winter meeting in Washington, Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates declared U.S. high schools "obsolete" and challenged the governors to help change them. Last week, the NGA announced that 10 states, including Virginia, will receive as much as $2 million each to implement plans to raise graduation rates and improve high school curricula. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will underwrite the financing.
Governors reiterated Sunday their belief that global competitiveness has left U.S. students in a precarious position, with an economy that demands greater skills but a high school system still designed for the old economy.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) noted that a generation ago, students who only finished high school or even dropped out could still find jobs in factories that provided adequate wages and benefits. Today, he said, that is no longer the case, with increased competition from abroad requiring students to complete not just high school but college as well.
"There is almost a crisis mentality percolating," he said. "People say the world has changed and we haven't."
Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) pointed to her state as an example of how the successes of the old economy are no longer sufficient in a world altered by technological change. She noted that Michigan, a manufacturing powerhouse when the Big Three automakers dominated worldwide, is now in the bottom tier of states with adults lacking a college degree. She said her goal is to double the number of college graduates in Michigan.
Although 45 states and Puerto Rico joined in signing the compact Sunday, several larger states have not joined in, among them California, Texas and Florida. Maryland and Wyoming also are not signatories. The pact was also signed by a dozen outside groups, including the Education Commission of the States and the Educational Testing Service.
Warner said that the country still lacks a common formula for measuring how well high schools prepare their students for success in college. Until that is done, he acknowledged, the movement to change high schools will be lacking crucial information.