Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) has been considering changes to the K-12 school accountability rating system, and as part of that process, has unearthed quite a bit of data showing how well public schools are preparing kids. They have shown data in three key areas: how schools help kids meet a basic standard of proficiency in core academic subjects, use their time in high school to get a head start on college, and successfully transition directly to the workforce. The data have been shocking.

First, in a state where just over a third of high school students score proficient or above on state tests in English, math, science, and social studies, 70% of high schools are rated “A” or “B.” That just doesn’t add up. Not only does that call into question the trustworthiness of such a system, but as the Advocate pointed out, “if kids are being sent out of high school with diplomas that aren’t worth much from a supposedly A- or B-rated school, that’s the type of inflation that scars lives for years and damages our state’s future in profound ways.”

Second, while workforce projections continue to show a growing need for individuals who have more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree, 82% of high school students are on a university prep pathway compared to 18% on a career pathway.

So, there’s misalignment. But then the question is, given that misalignment, how are those students doing in their respective pathways? Well, the news isn’t good there either. Only 42% of students on a university prep pathway actually go on to enroll in college and are still enrolled by the end of their second year. Of the students pursuing career training, only 6% are earning a career credential aligned with high-demand professions that earn a living wage.

Over the past decade, state leaders have pushed Louisiana high schools – and provided millions of state dollars – to offer students who are ready the opportunity to start earning post-secondary education credits in high school by taking traditional college courses and/or career courses. The idea was that if students are ready, they and their families can save time and money by getting an early start by completing these credits while still in high school rather than participating in the wasted senior year when many 12th graders only show up for one or two classes they need to fulfill diploma requirements. Today, as we look at which students are completing dual enrollment courses and in what subjects, we see that only 10% of enrollments are for career training – again, misaligned with workforce needs and real opportunities that await our kids as they transition to adulthood.

Houston, we have a problem. 

It’s been interesting to hear the arguments made by some school leaders as these issues have been debated over the past few months. Some have said that high school staff can’t possibly be expected to steer students and their families in the direction of high-opportunity pathways, even though state law requires them to present such information and advise accordingly. Others, like the Louisiana School Boards Association, have made comments saying high schools shouldn’t have any role in getting capable students working on their post-secondary education and training. They would prefer to use taxpayer dollars only for traditional high school education and nothing more, though their track record of effectively preparing kids to leave school with basic literacy and numeracy skills is terrible. Only 47% of kids arriving in 9th grade are proficient in English and reading, and only 23% are proficient in math. By the time kids graduate, those numbers aren’t much better (in fact, they’re worse), and about 10,000 graduates per year go on to college needing remediation.

Not every high school student will be ready to pursue post-secondary training or take college courses. That’s understandable, although more than one-third to one-half of kids should be arriving in high school on grade level. That’s a failure of middle schools that needs urgent attention.

Some students will need to spend the first few years of high school concentrating on proficiency in core subjects. If that’s what’s needed, that’s where high schools should spend their time.

What’s unacceptable is to do neither and to continue “graduating” thousands of kids each year totally unprepared to thrive as adults. Unable to succeed in college and unable to get a job that will support a family.

We can do better. We know where change is needed. We know what needs to be done. What we need now is leadership and courage – in schools and on BESE. Kicking the can down the road isn’t acceptable. Waiting until everyone magically agrees and sings kumbaya isn’t realistic. Our kids can’t wait. Our state can’t wait. We need bold change now.