Belmont High School English language arts teacher Brooke Ammons explains an assignment to students during the second week of the school year, Aug. 23, 2018. JEREMY P. KELLEY / STAFF

Graduation change could leave 1,000 local seniors without diploma

If the graduation requirements for current high school seniors had been in place a few months ago, more than 1,000 Dayton-area graduates likely would not have received diplomas.

That data raises huge questions about who in the Class of 2019 will earn their caps and gowns in nine months, with schools scrambling to help students meet the new state test standards.

“I am worried about the class of 2019 because almost one-third of our students last year needed one of the (alternate) options for graduation,” Warren County Career Center Superintendent Rick Smith said. “Real-world success is not all about passing tests.”

MAY 2018: Ohio not likely to extend graduation alternatives for 2019

The numbers are shocking. About 54 percent of Dayton Public Schools’ 2018 graduates did not achieve the 18 state test points that are now the primary pathway to graduation. Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said 66 percent of this year’s seniors have not yet reached that bar heading into this year’s retakes.

While DPS may face a crisis, it’s not just a Dayton issue. More than 10 percent of 2018 graduates in the high-performing Kettering and Tipp City districts didn’t reach 18 points, school officials said. It was 12 percent in Northmont, Beavercreek and Franklin, 18 percent in Mad River and 35 percent in Huber Heights.

JANUARY 2018: State board wants graduation options extended

That’s about 400 students in those seven districts, on top of 450 in Dayton and hundreds from the area’s other 30-plus districts. And that’s only counting actual 2018 graduates that didn’t meet the new bar. There are many other students who drop out along the way to senior year.

Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen said when both traditional dropouts and low scorers on the new tests are factored in, his district’s 2018 graduation rate would have been 68 percent with the new standard, compared with 81 percent in recent years.

Unsure what will be done

The 2018 comparison is important, as those students were the first ones measured on the new, harder tests the current seniors took as well. But amid worries of a graduation crisis, the Class of 2018 was given alternatives such as 93 percent attendance, a 2.5 GPA, 120 hours of work/service experience or senior “capstone” projects.

The state school board in January recommended extending those options to the Classes of 2019 and 2020 until a new long-term graduation system could be designed. But the state legislature declined to act, so barring a last-minute change when lawmakers return in November, those options are not available to current seniors.

“At this point I can’t say for sure that anything will be done,” said Ohio Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering. “I am certainly looking at the data very closely, and I’m going to be encouraging my colleagues to do likewise.”

DECEMBER 2017: Graduation rates rise; Ohio ranks low for black students

That data is complicated, said Chris Woolard, senior executive director for accountability at the Ohio Department of Education. While most students need 18 test points to graduate, a small number of special education students are exempt, possibly raising graduation rates.

But on the other hand, students also need to reach minimum sub-scores in math and English, meaning a student with 18 points still might not be eligible to graduate if he failed the math tests and did well on everything else.

“I think the real question here is, what’s the graduation rate going to be, and is it going to be significantly different? I can’t answer that question,” Woolard said. “Based on where we saw things six months ago, from an on-track perspective, things looked better than what people were concerned about two years ago.”

Schools frustrated

Over the course of this decade, the core educational standards Ohio schools are supposed to teach were changed, then the state’s testing system was changed to measure those standards. After an outcry about over-testing, the tests changed again, as did the state report card for schools, the evaluation system for teachers and the graduation rules students must meet.

When the graduation alternatives for the Class of 2018 were changed weeks before their senior year began, many believed that system would stay in place for at least another year.

OCTOBER 2017: 42 percent of Ohio seniors not at graduation level yet

“There was understanding by a lot of people, myself included, that we had come up with alternatives that were effective for 2018 and probably 2019,” Lehner said. “Somewhere along the way, there were other people who felt that we only did it for 2018, and that’s the way it was written into the budget bill (last summer).”

Educators have been complaining for years state leaders are jerking around schools and kids by moving the goalposts every year. Centerville Assistant Superintendent Bob Yux said his district is concerned about students at risk of not graduating, just like every year.

“But what sets this class apart is the challenge of how to appropriately counsel these students,” he said. “The State Board of Education and the Legislature continue to take turns pointing the finger at one another, delaying decisions, and in the eleventh hour, revoking the alternative pathways that were in place for the class of 2018. In essence, the delay simply complicated the ability of school districts to communicate to parents and students.”

JULY 2017: State OKs softer graduation rules for Class of 2018

Kierre Dewberry, a senior at Dayton’s Thurgood Marshall High School, said students don’t know whether they’ll be given the 2018 options, but they are focused on the state tests.

“Most kids are tuned in to where they stand (on points),” he said. “Our counselor talks to us about how important it is. Our senior class is meeting the first two weeks – do you have all of your points or no?”

A sprint for 2018-19

Kettering Fairmont Principal Tyler Alexander said the changes require a change in focus.

“I would not say that I am worried about the Class of 2019, but not having the alternative pathway option will change how we approach getting these students to the ‘finish line’ next May.”

Lolli said DPS is offering a class called “applications” in each of the seven state-tested subjects to get kids ready to retake the exams. Northmont just added seven similar intervention courses and Tipp City just added an “intensified Algebra 1 course” because of concerns over math scores.

JANUARY 2017: Ohio schools ranked exactly average nationally

“That’s a focus on getting the skills set of the student to the point that they can pass the state test,” Lolli said, adding schools don’t get as much information about the tests as they used to, to understand where gaps in curriculum and teaching are. “But we can teach them strategies, and the finer points of the test content that we do know from (what’s been released).”

School leaders at Fairborn, Franklin, Tecumseh and the Miami Valley Career Technology Center also said they’re concerned about how many kids will graduate without the 2018 options available.

But not everyone agreed. ODE’s Woolard expressed confidence students can gain points on state tests via retakes this school year. Leaders at Troy, Alter, Oakwood and Carroll high schools said almost all of their seniors last year earned the 18 points.

And Xenia Director of Instructional Services Sabrina Woodruff said her district is more prepared to qualify seniors via the industry credential pathway this year.

Where to set the bar?

There’s base-level disagreement on what should be required for graduation in Ohio — what are the skills we really want kids to have when they leave high school, how do we measure whether they have them and how high do we set the bar?

One camp, including former state school board President Tom Gunlock and Fordham Institute Ohio vice president Chad Aldis, has pushed for higher academic standards and tougher tests, saying too many high school graduates today don’t have the skills necessary for college or the workforce.

But when the state school board recommended extending the 2018 options, some board members pointed out Ohio’s testing system isn’t necessarily aligned with the skills employers want.

YEAR IN REVIEW: Top local, state education stories of 2017

“Employers are looking for 21st century skills — skills we are not testing for,” state board member Charlotte McGuire said. “So how do you blend foundational (academic) skills with those 21st century skills to deal with the whole child … creative thinking, resiliency, collaboration, communication?”

State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria agrees with the idea of high standards, telling Xenia educators in the first week of classes to keep challenging students “because kids always are able to exceed even the highest expectations we set.” But he has also said Ohio needs more options than just standardized tests “to give kids a chance to show what they know and what they can do.”

DeMaria’s graduation workgroup is studying best options for a graduation system for 2021 and beyond, and is expected to make recommendations this year that could include some type of portfolio option to show a student’s variety of qualifications beyond one-day tests.

TOP STUDENTS: See photos, bios of top local 2018 graduates

Lehner cautioned schools don’t have the resources to teach their normal number of high school students, plus dozens or hundreds who might need a fifth year after failing the tests.

“We need a balance of adequate rigor, that a diploma means something, without leaving kids short of a piece of paper that is really their passport to any kind of employment in the future. It’s a real challenge, and I don’t think we’ve hit that balance yet,” Lehner said. “If (the standard) doesn’t change, we’d better be prepared to significantly ramp up alternative pathways to get students their GEDs or an adult diploma, or we’re going to have a lot of people with no ability to be employed.”

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