Falling ACT scores for Mississippi high schoolers further illustrate that the increase in graduation rates, so touted by education officials and politicians, is an illusion created by decreased standards rather than an actual improvement in what students are learning.

The average ACT score for Mississippi juniors dropped from 17.8 in 2018 to 17.6 in 2019, according to numbers released this month by the Mississippi Department of Education. The scores for graduates fell from 18.3 to 18.1.

That’s the opposite of what graduation rates have done. They increased from 83 percent in 2018 to 84 percent in 2019, part of a steady rise that dates back to when the state’s graduation rate was 74.5 percent in 2014.

State leaders, including Gov. Phil Bryant, Gov.-elect Tate Reeves and Superintendent of Education Carey Wright, have all bragged repeatedly about those statistics.

However, if this state’s high school students were really achieving more in the classroom, then it would be reflected on the ACT, which is the national standard used by most colleges when admitting students. The fact that the ACT performance is actually worse shows that more students may be graduating but they’re less prepared for the real world, whether it be work or higher education.

So why are more graduating? The clear answer is that the state has lowered its standards. We now expect less from our children than we did just a few years ago.

Starting in 2013, the state Board of Education removed the requirement that students pass four subject-area exams in algebra, U.S. history, English and biology to graduate. That change coincides exactly with the increase in graduation rates.

Taxpayers deserve the truth about the results produced by their investment in public education, not cooked up numbers made to make those in power look good.

The students, too, deserve an education that actually makes them viable candidates for good careers. Giving them a diploma when they have not objectively earned it doesn’t accomplish that end. If nothing else, it cheapens the value of a Mississippi high school degree in the eyes of employers and universities.

As the national economy shifts toward being more service-based, the need for better academic knowledge among the workforce is only going to increase. That means Mississippi needs higher education standards, not lower, to lift the state’s economy.

The state Board of Education should reinstate the subject-area test requirement. While the graduation rates would no doubt go down, it would send a positive signal that the state is serious about improving the value of a high school diploma, not just playing games with statistics.

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