As communities watch their children board big yellow school buses each morning, it is easy to assume that they are “going to school” where they are “going to learn.” Unfortunately, for many students across the nation, this assumption does not hold true, as these two phrases—“going to school” and “going to learn”—are far from synonymous.

In addition to my SCORE internship this summer, I have been working on my senior thesis, a statistical analysis of student learning growth in GED preparation programs. I’d prefer not to count the number of hours poured into collecting and sorting data; typing statistical code into analysis software and making sure every semicolon was in the perfect place; charting diagrams and writing out equations; interpreting decimals and coefficients and intricate results tables. But at some point during these countless and often tedious hours, I stopped to think about the numbers that I was plugging into statistical analyses, and was struck by a reality far more profound than any mathematical equation I was working on: the all-too-large disconnect in our country between “schooling” and “learning.”

Two measures that I have been analyzing are GED students’ last grade completed and their math and reading SCOREs upon entering the GED preparation program. Looking at these numbers side-by-side, I was aghast at the disparities between students’ purported grade levels (based on number of years in school) and their actual mastery levels of academic skills.

Of the 100 students in my sample, 77 had at least some high school education. On average, though, these 77 students entered the GED preparation program reading at a level expected of seventh graders and doing math at the level that would be expected of students who had just finished fourth grade. These average achievement levels were no better for the students (29 total) who attended school through eleventh grade before dropping out. Note, too, that these are averages. Many students were passed along from kindergarten through ninth, tenth, or eleventh grade without ever actually learning math and reading skills beyond first-, second-, or third-grade levels.

How can this happen? How can students be carried along from year to year in our nation’s schools, accumulating more and more years of “schooling,” yet lagging so far behind in actual “learning”? How do schools and districts simply pass students from grade to grade without endowing them with the actual knowledge and skills characteristic of each level?

I think it comes down to expectations. Standards. And, more than anything, accountability: holding districts, schools, and education leaders accountable for not just schooling, but learning. Looking not just at school attendance, but at student achievement. Making sure our students are gaining skills and knowledge, not just accumulating hours of classroom time.

But the story goes beyond just the appalling numbers. In a series of personal interviews with GED students, I heard a common story over and over again: “I dropped out of school because I was frustrated.” “I wasn’t learning.” “I wasn’t truly advancing.” Now, these courageous, determined students are back in school—trying to play “catch up” while juggling families, jobs, utilities bills, and transportation issues.

Let’s stop providing empty schooling that ends up discouraging students and requiring them to “catch up” later. Let’s start providing true learning. In every classroom, in every grade, let’s make sure students learn what they need to know to advance not just in grade level, but in intellectual development and in life. Let’s remember that “schooling” and “learning” are not the same thing—and let’s strive for the latter.