Ohio’s four high school classes now have three sets of diploma rules

New graduation rules for Ohio’s high school Class of 2023 and beyond were set by the state legislature this week, continuing a seemingly annual change of standards for students seeking a diploma.

The four high school classes from 2020 to 2023 will have three different graduation requirements.

First, the new three-prong 2023 plan will still require students to pass 20 classroom credits. The second prong requires them to earn two of 12 “diploma seal” options on job readiness, various test scores, performing arts, community service and more. Many of those “seal” standards are new, with the details not yet finalized.

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The third prong requires students to score “competent” on the Algebra I and English II state exams, unless they enlist in the military, show career-tech/apprenticeship documentation, or earn college math and English credits. Those “competency scores” are to be set by March 1 by the Ohio Department of Education.

While the new law is the official system for the Class of 2023, it will be an option for rising juniors and sophomores as well. Each of the four grade levels in high school this fall will have to pass 20 classroom credits, but here’s a look at their requirements beyond that.

• Class of 2020: The system for rising seniors was set by the legislature in December. They can graduate via the existing three-prong system from the past two years – earn 18 of 35 points on the seven state tests, or score "remediation-free" on the ACT/SAT, or earn approved industry credentials and pass the WorkKeys exam.

But if they don’t meet one of those requirements, they can graduate by meeting two of eight other options very similar to the 2018 and 2019 classes, including a 2.5 GPA, a capstone project, 120 work/service hours, a job-readiness seal and more.

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• Classes of 2021 and 2022: The existing three-prong system listed for 2020 is still an option – state test scores, ACT/SAT scores, or job credentials/WorkKeys exam. But the eight alternative options from 2020 go away.

For these students, their alternative route to a diploma is the new 2023 system. That could require a quick adjustment for rising juniors and their schools, as some of the details of the 2023 system likely won’t be final until the very end of those students’ junior year.

•    Class of 2023: These students will be governed solely by the new system the legislature just passed … unless the system is tweaked again, as it has been three times in the past two-plus years.

Importantly, the new law says special education students can continue to handle state testing and earn diplomas via terms of their individualized education programs (IEPs).

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The new graduation system was just unveiled in May by two education nonprofits (the Fordham Institute and the Alliance for High Quality Education) and a newly formed business group (Ohio Excels).

Lisa Gray, president of Ohio Excels, called attention to the law’s requirement that schools identify by ninth grade those students at risk of not graduating, notify their families, and begin working on interventions. Gray acknowledged that many schools already do so, but called for best practices to be more widely shared.

The legislature chose the new system instead of a plan recommended by the Ohio Department of Education after a year of public meetings. ODE’s system would have allowed students to earn a diploma by showing skills in a broader variety of ways, such as tests, GPA, projects, portfolios.

Gray argued that the new model still gives students non-test pathways to a diploma, but they are more extreme, requiring enlistment in the military, a heavy career-tech commitment, or earning college math and English credit – likely a challenge for students who didn’t pass high-school competency tests.

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State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said he thinks ODE’s plan offered students better flexibility, but he is happy that the ensuing debate pushed the state to some form of flexible, multi-path diploma structure. He said it will be essential for ODE to work with “deliberate speed” to finalize diploma seal details and competency scores, so that the Classes of 2021 and 2022 can have enough time to make good decisions.

For more than a decade, through the Class of 2017, most students had to pass the Ohio Graduation Test to earn a high school diploma. The state moved to new, harder tests for the Class of 2018, but then softened the accompanying test-based graduation requirements when it appeared more students would fall short. For 2018 and 2019, students had graduation options similar to those for the Class of 2020.

For years, Ohio (and the nation) have debated whether standardized tests are the right measure of student readiness. In recent years, about a dozen states have required some form of proficiency test to earn a diploma.

Under the new system, two of the state’s high school tests will be eliminated for 2023 – Geometry and English I.

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