Ohio graduation rate at record high; 15 percent miss despite new options

Ohio’s four-year high school graduation rate rose by 1.2 percentage points from 2017 to 2018 with at least 10 percent of last year’s seniors using new alternate pathways to a diploma.

That 1.2-point increase – to an all-time high of 85.3 percent statewide – was larger than each of the past three years, when the graduation rate rose by 0.5 to 0.8 percentage points each year, according to the Ohio Department of Education.

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Despite Class of 2018 students’ ability to earn a diploma via less academically challenging options like good senior-year attendance or working a part-time job, 15 percent of Ohio’s Class of 2018 still did not graduate in four years.

“The data shows this was not a ‘diploma for everyone’ strategy …” ODE spokeswoman Brittany Halpin said. “We look forward to (working with) stakeholders to develop long-term graduation requirements that provide students with multiple ways to show competencies while ensuring they are prepared for life after high school.”

2018 was originally supposed to be the first year that students had to pass one of three harder new test pathways to earn a high school diploma. But the state legislature, citing the repeated testing changes that class had endured, plus worries of a graduation crisis, introduced alternatives in the summer before those students’ senior year.

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Instead of needing certain scores on those tests, students could earn a diploma by meeting two of nine standards that included good senior-year attendance, strong senior-year classroom grades, work/service hours, or a “capstone” project. They still had to pass school classes and at least attempt the state tests.

The ODE data said 67 percent of Class of 2018 students met one of the three harder testing pathways, while at least 10 percent used one of the alternate pathways. Another 15 percent did not graduate in four years, leaving roughly 8 percent listed as “diploma reported, no pathway identified.”

Some of those were special education students who earned a diploma by meeting the goals or exemptions of their Individualized Education Program. But others likely are students who used the alternate pathways but were miscoded in Ohio’s EMIS education database.

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ODE lists Milton-Union schools as having zero students who graduated via the alternate pathways, but 9 percent graduating with no pathway identified. Superintendent Brad Ritchey said Milton-Union “absolutely” had students graduate via the alternatives last year, suggesting there may have been a reporting error. Ritchey said the alternate pathways were taken seriously.

“We are not going to graduate children who do not earn the diploma,” Ritchey said.

The state data shows that only 38 percent of Jefferson Twp. students and 39 percent in Dayton met the state testing requirements for graduation, while 93 percent did in Oakwood and 88 percent in Springboro. Large districts including Miamisburg, Kettering and Centerville were over 80 percent.

But graduation rates in some districts that have struggled rose significantly, with Trotwood hitting 91 percent and Jefferson 90 percent. More than 30 percent of students in those districts used the alternate graduation pathways, according to ODE. Dayton’s graduation rate bounced back slightly to 74.1 percent, after dipping the past two years.

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New Lebanon Superintendent Greg Williams called the additional graduation pathways – which will continue for another two years – “a fair alternative” for Class of 2018 students who saw state tests change repeatedly. He said students should know on the first day of ninth grade what will be required of them to earn a diploma.

Williams said every school has some students not graduate, whether they drop out, or are special education students who stay beyond their fourth year.

“The most common reason for a student not to graduate at New Lebanon is that we have lost contact with him or her,” Williams said. “Students sometimes leave the area and do not re-enroll at another school. Those students still count in our graduation cohort even though they no longer attend New Lebanon Schools.”

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Ritchey cited new attendance procedures from House Bill 410 as a reason some Milton-Union students didn’t graduate in four years. He said while the intent of the law was sound, it delays court intervention with some truant students, “which, in some cases, prolongs sporadic student attendance that can lead to grade and credit issues … affecting graduation.”

Northmont Superintendent Tony Thomas said he’s a firm believer in alternate graduation pathways that prepare teens for career opportunities. Last year, his district added senior-only pathways for robotics and state-tested nurse aides, saying those students left high school prepared for the workforce. More than 11 percent of Northmont seniors graduated via one of the alternate pathways.

But Northmont’s four-year graduation rate actually went down almost 3 percent in 2018. Thomas said the district closed its internal charter school, and some of those students appeared not to go back to school.

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“Some of the issue is trying to track those kids down and find out if they were enrolled somewhere,” Thomas said, adding that if they enrolled at another school, they would no longer count as non-graduates for Northmont. “We could not verify (some of them).”

State legislators in 2019 will attempt to settle on a new set of long-term graduation requirements. The challenge will be balancing a push for strong pure academic demands with calls for more focus on interpersonal skills that employers say graduates are lacking.

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