I   certainly would like to believe more high school students graduated in 2009-10 -- the latest year for which the numbers are apparently available -- than in any year since 1976.

And I guess I do, since that's what the U.S. Education Department said in a recent release of information about graduation rates.

But I'm not sure how important that is in the big picture.

More students are graduating, but do they know more? Are they smarter? Are they better prepared for college or the world of work?

I have no reason to believe that's true.

And if you aren't sure about that, I'd encourage you to read any of a number of studies released by various college and university officials citing the ridiculously high number of high school grads who have to take remedial classes in math, English and other courses before they can even begin taking their freshman-level coursework.

Why? Because some of our best and brightest students are not prepared to do college-level work when they leave high school.

Many employers say the same thing about high school graduates -- they are not prepared to hold a job, even an entry-level job, when they leave high school.

So much for graduation statistics.

I'd rather believe a larger number of high school seniors graduated because of an improved sense of urgency about receiving an education or because they placed a higher value on being educated.

But I can't.

I'm more inclined to believe curriculums in many high schools have been dumbed down so much that more kids will stick it out until graduation because it's easier.

And that's unfortunate.

Because I don't believe kids graduating today are leaving high school with a better education than those who graduated in 1976 or any year since.

And if more students are graduating -- the numbers say they are by about 3 percent over the year before -- then I might suggest it's the students at the bottom of the heap who are graduating more often today.

The reason? I suspect graduation rates for the top 70 percent of students in 1976 and those in 2010 haven't changed that much, if at all -- 100 percent, or nearly so.

That's to be expected. The kids with the best academic records have always been more inclined to graduate and do it in four years. And most of the time it's because those students come from families that place a value on education.

The kids who struggle academically have always been the most at risk for not graduating at all or are more inclined to graduate in five or more years, rather than the traditional four years.

So, OK, that's apparently improved for the at-risk kids.

But how important is all that if the students aren't truly educated when they walk out the door?

Graduation rates must have more meaning than handing out a piece of paper to students who show up at school the required number of days, but only meet the minimum academic requirements.

It's not necessarily the pretty picture the Education Department wants to paint.

The truth is graduation rates don't mean as much as some people would like us to think. Sure, it's important that students graduate from high school. We want that for all of our children.

But what's really important is the knowledge they carry with them when they walk out the front door of the school.

Either they've learned something or they haven't after 12 years in school.

The high school diploma tells us a certain number of students went through the motions of getting an education, and they're moving on.

Sadly, it doesn't tell us what and how much they learned in the process.

Some learned a lot, I'm certain.

Some learned hardly anything.

Some made a great effort.

Some made hardly any effort.

But they all walked away with the same piece of paper.

What's the value in that?

Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: lhicks@yorkdispatch.com.