Improving the high school graduation rate in West Virginia would do the state a world of good in many ways, it has been pointed out.
Just this week, the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated a 5 percent increase in the graduation rate would save the state $100 million a year in crime-related costs. People without high school diplomas have a higher rate of being arrested and incarcerated, it was explained.
But too often, high school diplomas mean only that students were handed pieces of expensive, embossed paper after having attended school until the 12th grade - without having learned much.
Here in the Northern Panhandle, all but one of our high schools boast graduation rates higher than the state average of 79.3 percent. Yet the graduation rates, ranging from a low of 79.2 percent at Valley High School to a high of 95.1 percent at Cameron High, have to be viewed in the context of academic achievement.
It is dismally low at some schools. For example, Hundred High School has a 94.1 percent graduation rate. But during the 2011-12 school year, just 28 percent of 11th graders taking the Westest 2 or APTA (for some students with disabilities) examinations scored at the "proficient" level in mathematics.
The highest rate of 11th graders scoring "proficient" in math was at Tyler Consolidated High School - at just 60.37 percent.
This is not to say area schools are worse than those elsewhere in West Virginia. In many ways, academic achievement in the Northern Panhandle is fairly typical of state averages.
Laying blame solely on school personnel would be a mistake. Many are capable, dedicated and hard working. Truancy and dropout rates make it clear some are fighting losing battles against parents who don't really care whether their children attend school, much less learn while there.
Clearly, however, there is a problem and it is not solely how many students get diplomas but rather how many earn them. We West Virginians need to do better at ensuring that potential employers and/or college admissions officials have faith in diplomas granted by our high schools.