A little known ESSA provision sheds some more light on Ohio’s graduation “fix”

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A recent article in Education Week highlighted how an under-the-radar ESSA provision could spell trouble for states with multiple high school diplomas. The provision outlines the definition of a regular high school diploma, which must be used to calculate a state’s four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate. Specifically, the definition of a regular high school diploma is: “the standard high school diploma awarded to the preponderance of students in the State that is fully aligned with State standards.”

The trouble that several states are running into is with the phrase “the preponderance of students in the State.” Preponderance, by definition, means a majority. In the past, some states offering multiple diplomas have calculated their graduation rates by adding up the percentage of students who earn each of the different diplomas. Under ESSA, states will only be permitted to count one of those diplomas—a move that could significantly lower graduation rates.

According to the EdWeek article, the provision was intended to ensure that the diplomas states award are adequately preparing all students. “Advocates for lower-income and minority students, and those with disabilities, were key voices at the table when that section of the bill was being drafted,” EdWeek journalist Catherine Gewertz notes. “Those students tend to earn disproportionate shares of the lower-level diplomas.” Translation: The architects of ESSA suspected that states might try to maintain high graduation rates by awarding diplomas tied to less stringent graduation standards.

This brings us to the Buckeye State. As you may recall, Ohio lawmakers recently created an additional graduation pathway for the class of 2018. According to supporters, this was a temporary exemption, a one-year opportunity to address an impending “graduation apocalypse.” Based on information from the Ohio Department of Education, the students most at risk of not graduating attend Ohio's poorest urban districts and charter schools. These students are the same ones who are most in need of high expectations, rigorous curriculum, and expanded opportunities. 

Ohio has done exactly what the feds predicted would happen—state policymakers have opted to lower graduation expectations rather than maintain high expectations for all students. The only reason Ohio might get away with this is because of a technicality. The new requirements aren’t a separate diploma, they’re just another pathway to the same general diploma that the majority of students receive—albeit, a pathway completely devoid of any demonstration of academic competence. Since the entire class of 2018 is able to take advantage of the new pathway, an argument can be made that the preponderance of Ohio students will still be earning the same diploma. It doesn’t matter that the kids who have effectively demonstrated their learning and readiness—likely more than 50 percent—will be awarded the same diploma as students who only showed up for 93 percent of their senior year and worked for 120 hours at a menial job. Nor does it matter that many of these same graduates will likely have a hard time in college or the workforce. That final graduation rate percentage is what matters.

Whether it technically aligns with federal statute or not, Ohio’s alternate pathway for the class of 2018 is a blatant workaround of higher expectations—the same kind of loophole that the new federal education law hoped to close. 

Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.