Softer Ohio graduation rules may be expanded for 2 more years

The state school board overwhelmingly recommended Tuesday that softer, non-test-based graduation requirements be extended to the Classes of 2019 and 2020.

The relaxed standards have already been approved for current high school seniors (the Class of 2018). Those students still must pass 20 course credits, but rather than also passing state tests, they can earn a diploma by achieving any two of nine other standards, such as good senior-year attendance and grades, or via a senior-year project plus 120 hours of work or community service.

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The proposal to extend that policy two more years would require approval from the state legislature and a signature from the governor to become law. The state school board approved it by a 16-1 vote on Tuesday.

“I think the overwhelming consensus in the room was that we need to provide stability to students most importantly, but to the school districts preparing those students,” said state school board member Nick Owens, who represents Greene and Clark counties.

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Owens said educators have been looking for longer-term stability in the standards, rather than having the state “reinvent the wheel” each year while a student is part-way through their four years of high school.

The proposed rules

Students would still have to earn the required number of course credits, would have to take all end-of-course exams, and retake any of those math or English exams on which they earned a score of 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale. But they wouldn’t have to pass the exams.

If they didn’t score the required 18 of 35 points, they could graduate by meeting any two of nine other requirements:

* 93 percent attendance senior year

* A 2.5 GPA in at least four full-year senior-year courses

* A senior-year “capstone” project

* 120 hours of senior-year work or community service

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* Three credit hours via College Credit Plus

* Passage of an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate class and exam

* A “level three” score on each of three components of the WorkKeys test

* Industry job credentials totaling at least three points in Ohio’s system

* Receipt of an Ohio Means Jobs readiness seal.

A second career-tech-related provision would create a graduation pathway for students who complete a four-course career technical training program, and are either proficient on the technical exams, earn 12 points of credentials, or work 250-plus hours with positive evaluations.

Opposition, context

Chad Aldis, vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Fordham Institute, argued for higher standards, saying too many high school graduates don’t have the skills necessary for college or the workforce.

He also pointed to state data that almost 77 percent of current seniors are already on track to meet test-based graduation requirements, making the changes less necessary (Ohio’s current graduation rate is 83 percent).

“While supporters of this change are likely to make this a referendum on testing, this is really a question of whether Ohio high school graduates should be able to demonstrate a basic level of competency in math, reading, science, and American history,” Aldis said. “This change is ostensibly being recommended to help struggling students, but it’s these very students who most need the academic skills that are supposed to accompany a diploma.”

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State school board member Charlotte McGuire said students should be held to high standards, but she also cited a need to treat those students fairly and not disrupt school districts given all the testing changes in testing in recent years.

McGuire put significant focus on the state board’s ongoing strategic plan for the future and a long-term need to decide what skills are most important.

“We’re concerned about our children being prepared to make choices for college, career and life, including the military,” McGuire said. “Employers are looking for 21st century skills – skills we are not testing for. So how do you blend foundational skills with those 21st century skills to deal with the whole child … creative thinking, resiliency, collaboration, communication?”

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State Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said she’s “willing to give some leeway” on the graduation requirements for a few years while the state makes sure its standards and tests are right. But she also said student performance on state tests has improved enough that she’s wondering how much the state will need the additional options.

“I think the possibility of two more years could probably be sold to the legislature, but beyond that, no,” Lehner said. “People continue to struggle with this. We want to be fair to kids, but at the same time not set expectations so low that our kids are not prepared for the workforce. I don’t think we have the answers yet.”

Lehner also said she’s eager to see an upcoming bill on graduation issues that House Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner mentioned at the state board meeting Tuesday. She said whatever the legislature does, it needs to be thoughtful in its solutions, and not just reactionary.

The state school board’s resolution set a timeline for recommending long-term graduation standards, calling for a report from state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria in October, a state board committee vote in November, and a vote by the full state board in December 2018.

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