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Essentially, a diploma is nothing more than a sheet of parchment with embossed lettering and a few fancy words.

It has no real intrinsic value.

When a high school graduate goes to look for a job, however, that sheet of paper can have real worth. It's usually the bare minimum needed to find even marginal employment.

Students who leave high school without a diploma will likely struggle to make ends meet for the rest of their adult lives.

That's why the recent report that graduation rates are up, both across the United States and here in York County, seems like welcome news. Since the 2010-11 school year, national graduation rates have risen four percentage points, from 79 percent to 83 percent. Even better, gains were reported across all major subgroups, including minorities, low-income students and English learners.

Locally, the results are even more promising. Every York County district, except York City at 73.4 percent, is above the national average. Most are well above average, including a sterling 98.28 rate for Southern York County.

President Barack Obama attributed the upswing to his administration's efforts to better public education and make it accessible to all. Obama specifically cited growth in early childhood education programs, a focus on rewarding excellent teachers and a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind legislation as reasons for the rising numbers.

That shouldn't be surprising. All politicians love to pat themselves on the back.

The president, however, shouldn't get too carried away with the plaudits for his administration.

The news is not universally good.

While graduation rates are up, test scores have not shown a similar bump.

In fact, the Associated Press has reported that some test scores are declining. Last year, math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders dropped for the first time in a generation on the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress — also known as the Nation's Report Card. Reading scores weren't much better: flat for fourth-graders and lower for eighth-graders compared with 2013. Average scores on college entrance exams have also shown declines.

So what gives? Why are graduation rates up and test scores down?

Some believe that high schools are simply lowering standards and making it easier for students to graduate. In essence, the schools are being accused of “graduation inflation.”

The schools, of course, deny that is happening.

Ask any college professor, however, and he or she will likely tell you that many high school graduates, with diplomas in hand, are still woefully unprepared to do college-level work.

Ask any employer, and you'll likely hear similar tales about high school grads who are often unable to perform simple tasks in the work world.

The bottom line? There is still much work to be done.

It's definitely good news that more kids are graduating from high school. It will undoubtedly help more young adults get their foot in the door for that vitally important first job, or continue their schooling at the post-secondary level.

However, when they get that first job, or when they go on to college or trade school, they must have the tools needed to succeed.

If they don't, that sheet of parchment with embossed lettering and a few fancy words won't be worth anything at all.

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