Grades have their pluses and minuses when it comes to measuring student achievement, but it can at least be said they are readily understandable. Such is not the case for states' own self-assessments of graduation rates, arguably the most important single indicator of secondary school success or failure.

"Some states' official graduation rates are so improbably high that they would be laughable if the issue were not so serious," said the authors of a February 2005 study.

Most of the 50 governors agreed earlier this month to a straightforward, standardized approach to determining and reporting graduation rates. This promises for the first time to give parents and taxpayers a means of assessing how well schools are doing, free of the education system's efforts to finesse and obscure this basic indicator.

Neither Washington nor Oregon has anything to boast of when it comes to graduating and preparing high school students for the next stages of learning. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, taking a leadership role in proding the nation toward action on this issue, gives both states "C" grades on drop-outs and higher-education preparation.

Oregon ranks 32nd and Washington 31st among the 50 states in graduation rates, with 71 percent of Oregon students and 72 percent of Washington students finishing high school. Both have shown steady improvement in the number of those who graduate "college-ready," with Oregon climbing from 24 percent in 1991 to 33 percent in 2002; in Washington, the rate went from 24 percent to 34 percent. But neither can afford to celebrate.

Failing to complete high school nearly guarantees a life of seriously substandard income for individuals themselves, along with setting the stage for a similar outcome for their children.

On average, high school drop-outs earn $9,000 less than those who earn their diplomas. In turn, the income gap between those with a college degree and those without has doubled in recent years.

Aside from the consequences this has on the quality of life and health of the individuals directly involved, American society itself pays a heavy price for its drop-out rate in the form of lost economic opportunity. At a time when nations including India and China are making rapid progress toward becoming first-rate economies, our country can ill-afford squandering the potential of millions of drop-outs.

Accurately measuring the extent of the problem, as the governors have agreed to do, is just the first step in a long process that requires the active involvement of parents, educators and political leaders.

Some school districts - most notably in New Jersey, where 89 percent graduate - have developed processes and incentives that keep kids in school and engaged in learning. All states must shake off their complacency and learn these tested recipes for success.

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