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As recently as the 1950s, a young American armed with a high school diploma and a strong work ethic could set off for a relatively comfortable middle-class life with his or her family. The myth still lingered that a young impoverished person could improve his or her economic lot with hard work and good character.

But that myth started to give way to a new reality in the 1960s. A premium started being placed on a college degree, especially as new fields opened up in the worlds of science and technology after Sputnik and the race to the moon. As college became more in demand, the wage gap began to grow between high school graduates and college graduates.

That trend continues today, compromising the economic stability of those citizens with only high school diplomas. These numbers illustrate the point: In 1972, 7 percent of Americans with a high school education were living in poverty. By 2014, that number had doubled to 14 percent. Put another way, people with only a high school diploma accounted for 29 percent of the total U.S. population in 2014 but made up 35 percent of those living in poverty.

Despite those grim numbers, our K-12 system largely operates as if getting students to high school graduation is the goal. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s new strategic plan, for example, calls for a 100 percent graduation rate of its students, which, by the way, has never been accomplished in a large urban district.

In 2014-2015, the district’s graduation rate was 72.2 percent, continuing a recent upward trajectory. Yet in 2014-2015, only 33 percent of LAUSD students were proficient in math on California’s state assessments and 44 percent were proficient in reading.

How do we reconcile that gap between academic proficiency and graduation rates? What is a diploma worth if so many students are not mastering core subjects such as math and reading?

Those are haunting questions given that economic opportunity increases with education attainment, whether that is a technical certificate, two-year degree or a bachelor’s degree. And they raise another important question:

What must the K-12 system do to help students graduate from high school with more than just a diploma in hand — but also with choices and an understanding of their next steps?

The first answer is accountability. We all have a vested interest in understanding the progress of students. None of us, though, has a greater stake in a precise reading than students themselves.

Their futures are compromised when their districts focus on high school graduation rates more than measurable academic achievement and mastery.

The second answer is making sure students are on the road to becoming adaptable, lifelong learners. The K-12 system must help students succeed over time as technical skills evolve, new jobs and fields are created, and others fade away. That’s the nature of the modern economy.

The 2016 National Association of Colleges and Employers survey points to this reality. It found that employers most desire employees with the following attributes: leadership; ability to work in a team structure; ability to make decisions and solve problems; ability to communicate verbally and in writing; ability to plan, organize and prioritize work; ability to analyze quantitative data; and flexibility.

The third answer is to connect rigor with relevance. People stick with something difficult if the end result is meaningful. Students are no different. Their work takes on a clearer focus if they understand their studies are connected to their goals and their lives.

Higher education undoubtedly creates access to the middle class, but the K-12 system is the launch pad for postsecondary success and economic opportunity. That pathway starts when districts measure the academic progress of students against meaningful standards, help students plan and prepare for postsecondary success, and make deliberate connections for students to all forms of professional life.

When they do that, school systems infuse high school diplomas with real meaning and value.

Anne Wicks is the director of the Education Reform Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas. This essay originally appeared in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas” from the Bush Institute. This is distributed by InsideSources.com.

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