Chad L Aldis testimony before the State Board of Education of Ohio - December 13, 2016

NOTE: The State Board of Education of Ohio is today debating whether to change graduation requirements for the Class of 2018 and beyond. Below are the written remarks that Chad Aldis gave before the board today.

Thank you, President Gunlock and state board members, for allowing me to offer public comment today.

My name is Chad Aldis. I am the vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-oriented nonprofit focused on research, analysis, and policy advocacy with offices in Columbus, Dayton, and Washington, D.C.

High school diplomas are supposed to signal whether a young person possesses a certain set of knowledge and skills. To its credit, Ohio is phasing in new graduation standards that will do that by better matching the expectations of post-secondary institutions, employers, and our armed forces. The new standards ask our young people to demonstrate readiness by either passing end of course exams (EOCs), achieving a remediation free ACT or SAT score, or earning an industry credential.

After years of low graduation standards, Ohio’s new requirements are a major step in the right direction. We need to set the expectations high for the young men and women who will become our business and civic leaders; scientists and engineers; teachers and law enforcement officers; and leaders in many other professions.

I’m not here to say that the decision on graduation standards is an easy one. No one should withhold a diploma from a deserving student. But at the same time, the state shouldn’t award meaningless credentials either. As you debate these issues, I would like to offer two suggestions.

First, I urge the board to exercise patience and not make a rash decision to adjust graduation standards. Over the past few years, we as a state have done much work to signal to families, taxpayers, and students that Ohio is raising expectations for all students. Backtracking prematurely on graduation standards would send the exact opposite message.

Let’s also keep in mind that many students are stepping up to meet these higher expectations. According to last month’s presentation by the Ohio Department of Education, 65 percent of the class of 2018 is on-track to meet the EOC requirements. This doesn’t even include students who will graduate via the career and technical pathway or will achieve the necessary EOC exam points after retakes. At the very least, we should see what the data look like after this school year before deciding whether changes are absolutely needed.

A bigger question is whether lowering the number of EOC exam points necessary to graduate is the right way to address the problem. While it’s one of the few public policy solutions available to you as the State Board, it’s a rather blunt instrument that could reduce the incentive to get every student ready for success after high school. Moreover, once lowered, this is going to be incredibly difficult to increase.

Over the longer term, it might make more sense for state leaders to work towards a multi-tiered approach to awarding diplomas. This would help to ensure that all hard-working students receive the credential they need to take their next step in life, while also creating an incentive structure that encourages our young men and women to aim for higher goals. A tiered approach would build on the honors diploma that Ohio already has in place, and could work like this.  

At a base level, Ohio could create a standard-issue diploma—offered by either the state or local school districts—signifying that pupils have met their coursework requirements, though demonstrated only basic level skills on exams. One step up could be a diploma indicating college and career readiness. To earn this credential, students would need to meet rigorous benchmarks on end of course exams (probably 18 to 21 points), college admissions exams, or complete a demanding industry certification. This diploma would line up closely with Ohio’s new graduation requirements—perhaps even a little more challenging. At a third level, the state could award a prestigious diploma geared to the expectations of our most selective colleges and universities. To enhance their value and offer incentives to students, the state could even tie merit scholarships to the top two diplomas. Through continued transparency, school districts should continue to be incentivized to get as many students as possible to the college and career ready and honors diplomas.

A tiered approach to awarding diplomas recognizes that different students leave high school with a different set of knowledge and skills. But one might ask whether it would lower expectations for certain pupils. In my view, it would not: Every student in Ohio would have the opportunity—and hopefully the incentive—to aim for a diploma that is aligned with her long-term goals. On the other hand, lowering the number of points required on EOC exams would lower expectations for all Ohio students.

For some young people, attaining the standard Ohio diploma will be something they and their families celebrate and cheer. It will also open doors to employment and post-secondary education. For others, meeting the demands of the prestigious, tertiary level diploma will be a source of tremendous pride, and put them on the pathway to leadership in our highest-need career fields.

Ohio is taking an important step forward in raising its graduation standards. I encourage the board to exercise patience and not rush into a decision. At the same time, let’s explore a different approach to awarding diplomas—one that can incentivize students from across the entire academic spectrum to reach their full potential.  

Thank you for the opportunity to offer public comment.

Chad L. Aldis
Chad L. Aldis is the Vice President for Ohio Policy and Advocacy of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.