An alternative proposal for high school graduation requirements

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Last year, the state legislature followed a recommendation made by the State Board of Education and created a series of alternative graduation requirements for the class of 2018. These alternatives were far too easy and allowed schools to graduate students who were not career and college ready.

A few of the alternatives were particularly bad. For instance, one requirement allowed students to graduate if they had an attendance rate of 93 percent during their twelfth grade year. In the district where I teach, I know that even though many students would show up late and leave early, adults wouldn’t mark them absent out of fear of eliminating the attendance graduation alternative. It’s bad enough that data weren’t tracked reliably. But missing what amounts to thirteen days a year also doesn’t add up to creating a career- or college-ready student. Instead, it rewards students for doing something that we should already be expecting them to do.

Another example is the requirement that allowed students to graduate if they completed a capstone project during twelfth grade. I watched students in my district complete this requirement by writing book reports or writing papers about what they wanted to be when they grow up. That’s the kind of project one would see in elementary school, not high school, and it in no way prepared students for the rigors of college, where research is essential to being successful.

These are just a couple of examples of how the weak alternatives available to the class of 2018 were a disservice to students and schools. Ohio needs graduates who are college and career ready, and it needs schools, teachers, and students to be held accountable for learning. But graduation requirements should also acknowledge student growth. That’s why I’d like to make the following proposal for how to change Ohio’s graduation requirements.

Under my proposal, students would still be required to take end-of-course (EOC) exams and accumulate points based on their scores. Instead of having to earn eighteen total points on EOC tests to graduate, students would only need to earn fourteen points on exams. Students who earn fourteen or more points—but less than eighteen—would be required to complete additional pathways to demonstrate their readiness.

The number of pathways that a student would need to complete would depend on how many EOC points they accumulated. Take a look:

These pathways would be an improved version of the 2018 alternative requirements, and would include:

  • A grade point average of 2.5 or higher during twelfth grade
  • Completion of a capstone project about a relevant issue in Ohio to be completed during twelfth grade
  • Working 250 hours in a job or community service project during twelfth grade
    • Must include a favorable evaluation from a supervisor
    • Must be completed at one specific site for at least ninety days
  • Completion of three hours of a post-secondary class any time during high school
  • Earning a remediation-free score on the ACT or SAT
  • Scoring a three or higher on an Advanced Placement exam or four or higher on an International Baccalaureate exam at any time during high school
  • Scoring a three on each subsection of the WorkKeys exam

As you can see, many of the problems with the 2018 alternative requirements would be resolved under the new proposal. Removing attendance as an option, for example, ensures that showing up is an expectation for all students and prevents adults from gaming the system. By increasing the number of hours students must work in a job or community service project, limiting the project to one site, and requiring a favorable evaluation from a supervisor, students will be held accountable for their performance, learn what employers want, and demonstrate perseverance.

As far as EOC exam performance, as is the case under current law, students would still be required to earn at least four points in English, four in math, and six points in science and social studies. At least one of the additional pathways a student completes must be an out-of-school experience. In addition, this pathway places an emphasis on growth requiring all students to retake each year any test on which they score less than proficient until they either become proficient or graduate. It has teeth, too, as students are not permitted to graduate using the EOC pathway if they have a final score of “limited” on any assessment. If students improve their EOC scores and earn more points, they can decrease the number of pathways they must complete.

There are a few reasons this proposal is better than those currently being advocated for by the State Board of Education. First, it gets incentives right. Maintaining testing requirements for graduation ensures that students will take tests seriously and that report card measures like the Performance Index will accurately report achievement, not student effort. Removing easily gameable options like attendance also prevents adults who, though they may have good intentions, have low expectations for students. And maintaining EOC testing ensures that everyone—students, teachers, and schools—are accountable for student learning.

Second, this proposal focuses on growth instead of just compliance and achievement. By having students retake tests until they earn a proficient score, the state is communicating the importance and value of perseverance, as well as holding schools accountable for giving students intensive remediation and intervention. Importantly, a student who improves and earns additional EOC-exam points will need to complete fewer pathways to reach the required eighteen points.

As one can see, this is not a substitute for testing. It is all about achievement, growth, and accountability for students, staff, and districts. This is a compromise that all groups can get behind. It is what Ohioans expect but rarely get from Columbus and Washington—the ability to find common ground. As a teacher who has dedicated my life to helping the next generation, I implore the legislature to adopt a common-sense middle ground like this that maintains a focus on academic achievement but gives students additional, meaningful opportunities to demonstrate college and career readiness. Our young people deserve it.

Mr. Soper is an Ohio teacher. These are his views and may not reflect the views of the Canton City School District, Canton Professional Educators’ Association, or the Ohio Education Association.