by Robert Maynard
The Burlington Free Press recently published an article titled “Vermont graduation rates are high, but students may be lacking in basic academic skills.” First, the good news: “Vermont’s graduation rate is routinely among the highest in the nation, second highest behind Wisconsin in 2009, according to one study. In a nation where the average graduation rate runs about 75 percent, Vermont’s cohort graduation rate is a dozen points higher: 87.46 percent for the class of 2011, according to the Vermont Education Department.” The problem is that those graduates do not seem to be prepared from higher education. The article noted the following about three recent Vermont high school now attending the Community College of Vermont:
All three are students at Community College of Vermont in Winooski and all three are enrolled in at least one remedial class full of other high school graduates who are paying to learn material that they could have learned for free in high school. A significant number of students at CCV are required to take both a math and English catch-up course at a total cost of about $1,400 before they can enroll in a full load of credit-bearing courses.
The question raised in the article in response to the trend was: “Are high schools graduating students without a solid academic foundation and is it too easy to earn a high school diploma in Vermont?” Part of the problem is national reform efforts aimed at hiking graduation rates. It appears that the hike in graduation rates was accompanied by a lowering of standards:
For the past 10 years, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind, has graded high schools on their graduation rate and ratcheted up pressure to bring students to the finish line.
But there are signs in Vermont that the diplomas are in some cases resting on a shaky academic foundation. Enrollment in remedial courses at community colleges is one indicator. Another: Only 21.5 percent of the 6,473 Vermont 11th graders who took the 2011 New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests passed all four subjects — reading, writing, math and science.
Vermont’s Department of Education found more cause for alarm: “They cite a statistic that in 2008, for every 100 students who entered ninth-grade, 86 graduated but only 41 went on to college. Historic pattterns suggest only 24 of those are likely to earn a four-year degree within six years.”
Unfortunately, it is not just college that our high school graduates are ill prepared for:
And for those students not going straight to college, anecdotes from the labor market suggest some high school grads find themselves without the skill sets needed for entry level jobs.
Employers have since the recession found ways to be more productive with fewer people, and when they hire they are looking for people with a solid education and the potential to be trained, said Lisa Ventriss, president of the Vermont Business Roundtable.
In addition to receiving an education that leaves them ill prepared for either higher education, or the job market, Vermont’s young people face another problem. The job market in Vermont is not that attractive even for those who are prepared. Such lack of opportunity is arguably a factor in the flight of youg people from Vermont for greener pastures elsewhere. The New York Times chronicled this flight in a 2006 article titled “Vermont Losing Prized Resource as Young Depart.” As the article notes:
Poultney, a town of 3,600 bordering New York, is just one example of a situation that increasingly alarms many in Vermont. This state of beautiful mountains and popular ski resorts, once a magnet for back-to-the-landers, is losing young people at a precipitous clip.
Vermont, with a population of about 620,000, now has the lowest birth rate among states. Three-quarters of its public schools have lost children since 2000.
Vermont also has the highest rate of students attending college out of their home state — 57 percent, up from 36 percent 20 years ago. Many do not move back. The total number of 20- to 34-year-olds in Vermont has shrunk by 19 percent since 1990.
To sum it up, Vermont’s young are facing a double whammy. Many are ill prepared for life after high school and those that are increasingly are drawn to seek opportunity elsewhere. This is a reality that does not bode well for Vermont’s future.