The state school board is revisiting Ohio’s new graduation requirements for the Class of 2018 and beyond, with an eye on softening the standards for a few years so more students will graduate.
Ohio’s statewide four-year graduation rate has inched upward every year from 78 percent in 2009-10 to 83 percent in 2014-15, almost exactly matching the national rate.
But many educators have warned that Ohio’s new, harder high school tests could lead to a significant drop in graduation rates in May 2018, when the state’s new point system goes into effect alongside those tests. Test scores have been much lower the past two years — the same years current juniors took state high school exams that help decide whether they graduate.
“The Department of Education is running a lot of data,” state school board president Tom Gunlock said. “We have a lot of (juniors) who have finished at least six tests out of seven, so we can try to look and see how many students statewide are having an issue.”
The state’s desire for tougher standards — to better prepare students for their futures — will be weighed against worries of a dropout crisis that could leave thousands of students without high school diplomas.
State to study issues
Gunlock, who has long been a proponent of higher standards, said he’s already thought of different ways to soften the system temporarily. He mentioned lowering the 18 total points needed on state tests to 16 or 14, or eliminating the requirement that students meet a minimum point total in each subject, which is especially a hurdle in math.
He also suggested a system of bonus points for high classroom grades or students who complete remediation.
“But I don’t want to do something until I really understand the problem,” Gunlock said.
To that end, Gunlock has asked the Ohio Department of Education to analyze test results for the Class of 2018, study how high schools are tracking students’ graduation progress and helping them improve, and present documentation showing how the tests are aligned to Ohio’s academic content standards.
The state school board will discuss those issues at its Nov. 14-15 meeting.
Board member A.J. Wagner, who has warned of a graduation crisis, applauded Gunlock’s call for more information, saying the state has “shot from the hip” on some policy changes and would benefit from more analysis. Wagner said the review could help the state find best practices that could be shared statewide.
Data counted differently
Some school superintendents have already run testing numbers for their own districts, and they’re sounding an alarm. But it appears schools are calculating the numbers in different ways.
Monroe Superintendent Phil Cagwin said 25 percent of his current juniors are not on pace to graduate, but he counted all juniors who had less than 18 test points, even if they still had one test to take.
Hamilton Superintendent Tony Orr estimated 52 percent of his juniors were not on track, but he counted only those students who had less than 15 points heading into the American Government test, where two-thirds of students got at least three points last year.
Gunlock cited preliminary data that Kettering schools — where most students take all seven state tests before their junior year — had only 2 percent of juniors not on track to reach 18 points. But Kettering Fairmont Principal Tyler Alexander said it depends on which students are counted.
“About 5 percent of kids who have taken all of the assessments have not met 18 points and are not on track to graduate,” he said. “But that’s not all of the students. And I’ve got two years to retest them, so I’m not concerned yet about all of those kids.”
Springfield Superintendent Bob Hill estimated 70 to 75 percent of his juniors are not on pace to graduate, but then said that was just an assumption based on overall district proficiency on state tests. He said he had not calculated individual student scores.
Several superintendents questioned why one-day tests carry more weight than a year-long grade in the classroom, especially as students have faced three different types of state tests in three years.
“Requiring the end-of-course exams at the high school doesn’t make sense,” Cagwin said. “We were asking ODE to allow local school boards to make those decisions.”
Gunlock said any decision to change the cut scores or point system on state tests is within the state school board’s power. But he said eliminating the tests altogether, or creating a two-tier diploma system with higher and lower requirements, would require action from the state legislature. And he acknowledged the legislature might step in.
“But I would hope they would allow us the opportunity to figure out whether we have an issue, then maybe for another couple of years we lower the cut score or give some bonus points for certain things,” Gunlock said. “I’m not panicking yet. We’ve just got to work on data before we (move forward).”
Wagner said he will continue to advocate for “blowing up” the state’s testing system, because he thinks it “has no basis in evidence” and will cause years of tumultuous change.
“We have a lot of juniors out there who are sweating,” he said.
Staff Writer Michael D. Clark contributed to this story.