America’s high schools face a growing crisis: Millions of students who entered ninth grade in the fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, are set to graduate this spring, with little hope of recovering from the learning loss incurred while schools were shut. Simply put, they’re running out of time.

Since the start of the pandemic, the academic performance of high school students has been abysmal. In 2022, average scores on the ACT exam were the lowest in 30 years; this year’s results were even worse. Barely 20% of students met college-readiness benchmarks in all four areas tested – English, math, reading and science – and 43% met none, up from 35% in 2018. Other data show broad declines in reading and math proficiency, while the number of students receiving failing grades has soared. In Houston, the country’s eighth-largest public school district, as many as half of high school students have flunked at least one course since the start of the pandemic, compared to one-third in 2019.

Absent alternatives, these students will leave school unprepared for either college or the workforce – greatly increasing their risks of unemployment, poverty, depression and even early death. District officials have a responsibility to address the catastrophic damage caused by school closures pushed by teachers unions and their political allies.

In a functional system, underperforming students would be held back until they demonstrated command of their course material. Instead, schools are doing the opposite. Nationwide, high school graduation rates have recovered from an early pandemic dip, with some districts reporting record numbers of graduates despite little evidence of achievement gains. Only eight states require seniors to pass a test of basic skills to earn their diploma, down from 25 a decade ago, and three of the holdouts – New Jersey, Massachusetts and New York – are considering proposals to scrap them. This lack of accountability is a big reason why nearly 38% of college students fail to finish their degrees within six years, and 45% of community college students drop out altogether.

Preventing irreversible damage for older students will require a tougher approach. High schools should start by being candid with parents about where their kids stand and the work necessary to meet end-of-year benchmarks. They should make clear that chronic absences – which have soared since the pandemic, most acutely among high schoolers – will affect students’ ability to graduate on time. States should push districts to require that, at a minimum, graduating seniors be tested on their proficiency in core subjects to receive a diploma.

Schools should identify those who fail to meet basic standards. But simply forcing scores of 18-year-olds to spend another year in high school is likely to do them more harm than good, while straining limited resources. Better to give current seniors the option of spending a postgraduation gap year completing high school coursework while taking introductory college classes or starting apprenticeships with local employers. Schools also should work with community colleges, which have seen an 18% drop in enrollment since 2019, to create dedicated academic recovery centers that would help students establish a foundation for postsecondary success.

Extending free education beyond 12th grade won’t be cheap – yet as much as $90 billion in federal pandemic aid to schools remains unspent. The most urgent priority is to use those funds to help high school students recover what they’ve lost, before it’s too late.

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