A student walks along a hallway after the graduation ceremony at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Va. A hot issue in education today is whether many high school graduates are squeaking through via online credit-recovery courses. (Gabriella Demczuk /For The Washington Post )
Columnist

The hottest issue in high schools these days is the sharp rise in U.S. graduation rates — up to a record 83 percent — and whether it is real or an elaborate scam.

I think the latter.

There has been an accelerated use of online credit-recovery courses, which allow students to substitute a few weeks of work online for a course that usually takes months in a classroom. But there is no research showing students learn much in the courses — used by 88 percent of school districts — that got them to commencement.

Some students squeaked by with a few multiple-choice answers after reading short passages. Some were told which questions they got wrong and were urged to try again — quick before you forget!

But after reporting such dishonest shortcuts, I have revealed myself to be another villain in the ruination of our nation by suggesting we let those kids graduate anyway. School is torture to them. They are going to drop out, so why not give them diplomas so they can get some job while they mature and decide what kind of additional schooling they want?

To help me with such contradictory thoughts, I have asked several experts if they think I am wrong, and why. They are not comfortable with the notion of diplomas as farewell gifts, but they admit the problem is not easily solved.

Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said, “I would not condone inferior, watered-down courses under any circumstances.” He prefers a “move toward personalized learning” that he says is already underway.

“At-risk students do have the opportunity to work at a pace appropriate to their needs and, without seat-time requirements, expand learning time to include the home, the library and anywhere that they can get online,” he said. Unfortunately, he added, not all states have gone in that direction.

Robert Gira is executive vice president of Advancement Via Individual Determination, the nation’s largest college preparatory program. He agreed with me that students who fail courses resist repeating them. But he thought credit recovery could work if the courses are monitored to make sure they produce significant learning. The best schools, he said, tie all student work “to an overall plan for their futures.”

Joseph Hawkins, a veteran education researcher based in Montgomery County, Md., said administrators should check credit-recovery courses for effectiveness. “A kid who, for example, recovers credit in Algebra must actually sit and pass an Algebra exam,” he said.

Creative thinking is needed, Hawkins said. He said high schools could set up an academic plan with a ninth-grader at risk that might take five years, but at a pace they could handle.

Finding quick ways to graduate as many seniors as possible is not new. It has been evident in nearly all high schools I have studied the past 30 years. Retired D.C. history teacher Erich Martel has been exposing diplomas granted for inadequate credit for more than a decade. Claims that school officials in Prince George’s County, Md., altered the grades of students to meet graduation-rate targets may be making the headlines now, but nearly all teachers can tell stories about such happenings in their buildings. Often it is nice people trying to ease students out of schools that can no longer help them.

Only one expert shared my view of the inevitability of such activity. Jerry Heverly, a veteran English teacher in California, saw this as part of our culture, like hot dogs on Independence Day.

“I’ve felt for many years that a high school diploma is not a measure of academic achievement in most of America,” he said. “It is more akin to a quinceañera or bar mitzvah. It means you are officially an adult. It’s a rite of passage. . . . Counselors and administrators buttonhole teachers the last weeks of school pleading for consideration for that nice kid who only needs one more class to graduate. Who wants to be the Grinch that kept Sally from walking the stage?”

Twelfth grade is too late for tough talk. Graduation requirements can work if taken seriously in ninth grade. But we seem to prefer slick makeup courses that take just a few weeks.