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What’s the value of a high school diploma?

A high school diploma is more than just a piece of paper. It’s a promise we make to our children: put in the hard work to earn one, and you’ll be on the path to achieve your goals in life. Whether that means earning a college degree or training for a 21st century career, you’ll be ready to succeed.

That’s why the recent news that high school graduation rates are on the rise in Nevada and across the nation should be cause for celebration. But while these gains reflect the hard work of so many students, parents and teachers, they also mask a troubling reality: A huge percentage of those hard-earned high diplomas are empty promises.

For example, even though 73 percent of students in Nevada and more than 80 percent of students across the country are now graduating from high school, far fewer are ready for college. About 40 percent of those who enroll in college will be shunted into remedial classes, where they’ll spend time and money learning skills they were told they’d already mastered.

Most of those students will never recover to earn a college degree.

Graduates who opt for a career straight out of high school aren’t faring much better. Most employers report that high school graduates enter their roles “deficient” in the skills they need to do their jobs well — from the basics such as reading and math to applied skills such as communications and professionalism.

We can’t blame these sobering statistics on a lack of effort from students, or a lack of involvement from their parents. We can’t blame them on intractable problems like poverty.

These numbers represent families who, despite whatever challenges they may have faced, did everything their schools asked of them for 12 years. The parents paid taxes, bought pencils and three-ring binders and attended parent-teacher conferences. The students got to school every day, studied hard and did their homework.

They held up their end of the bargain. The rest of us reneged on ours.

At the root of the problem is a gap between what schools expect from students before they graduate from high school, and what the real world demands from them afterward.

In our work across the country, we’ve found that, on average, fewer than half the classroom assignments students receive are challenging enough to keep them on track for college — even in schools that have adopted college-ready academic standards. We routinely see fifth graders doing math problems better suited for third graders, and high school English classes that revolve around worksheets with one-word answers.

This is how students who work hard and earn good grades can still graduate unprepared for today’s economy. It’s as though we’re expecting high school graduates to run a marathon when we’ve only let them practice running a mile.

The solution starts with adopting college-ready academic standards like the Common Core — because all students deserve the opportunity to go to college, even if they choose not to.

But that’s the easy part, and something most states have already done. The hard part is implementing those standards: ensuring that teaching and learning reflects the right expectations — in every classroom, every day, from pre-kindergarten through high school.

To make it happen, leaders at every level of the education system need to start focusing on what exactly students are doing in school every day. What concepts are they grappling with? What work are they being asked to complete? Most importantly, is their typical day putting them on track to do college-level work down the road?

We also need to start judging school systems based not only on how many students they graduate, but how many of those graduates ultimately achieve their college or career aspirations.

Nevada’s kids deserve more school days that are challenging and inspiring enough to match those dreams. They can do so much more than their schools ask of them today. They want to do more. We just need to give them the chance — and start keeping our promises.

Daniel Weisberg is CEO of TNTP, a national nonprofit that works with school systems across the country to provide excellent teachers to students who need them most.

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