Five ideas for resolving Ohio’s debate over graduation requirements

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Malcolm X once said, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” 

Wise words. Education has long been the source of opportunity, a passport if you will, for Americans to pursue a better life. But education isn’t a passive activity; it’s earned through hard work, preparation, attainment.

Starting in 2009, Ohio began to move away from a relatively low benchmark of competency—the Ohio Graduation Tests[1] (OGT)—and toward the more rigorous expectations of high school end-of-course exams as a precondition for obtaining a diploma.[2] The impetus was that too few students in Ohio were leaving high school with the skills necessary either to enroll in postsecondary education without costly remediation or to enter the workforce. The new system, deemed the “College and Work Ready Assessment System,” was designed to require more work on the part of students to be successful and to act as an effective replacement of the OGTs and their low expectations.

Just as the requirements were finally set to be enforced, however, concerns that too few students would meet the higher bar resulted in development of a new and much less demanding graduation option for the class of 2018. Students would be able to receive a diploma for completing two of nine alternative measures, some of which had nothing to do with academic attainment. We’ve roundly criticized this smorgasbord option as a route to leaving Ohio again hungry for graduates who possess fundamental skills in core subjects like math, English, history, and science.

At first, the easy path applied only to the class of 2018. Recently, however, the State Board of Education voted to recommend to the legislature that the “temporary” framework be extended to the classes of 2019 and 2020. That is seriously and tragically unwise. Making it easy to graduate was a bad idea last year, and it’s even worse as it moves from a one year exception to a pattern and practice.

Here are five better approaches that deserve serious consideration if Ohio hopes to deliver on the promise of preparing young people for the world they’ll face tomorrow. Underlying all five are these key precepts: all students can learn and reach Ohio’s graduation requirements; receiving a great education remains the surest path toward a better life; work and college ask more of students than ever before; and incentives inform behavior, such that policy solutions should be structured in a manner to encourage all students to reach their potential.

1. Hold the line

Ohio’s fundamental graduation problem hasn’t changed. Too few students are leaving high school ready for either college or work. If higher expectations were important before, it’s imperative that we maintain them going forward. It’s true that those seeking an easier path to graduation are worried that the demanding version will create a graduation crisis. Yet early data from the Ohio Department of Education offer little support for their concern. The data suggest that 77 percent of the class of 2018 are highly likely to meet the graduation requirements based upon either EOC exams or remediation-free ACT/SAT scores. This doesn’t include students who will complete the industry-credential pathway or those with disabilities who will receive a diploma without passing state testing requirements. While not an apples-to-apples comparison, these numbers suggest that even with higher expectations, Ohio is fairly close to matching its current 83 percent high school graduation rate.

2. Encourage students who need it to take a fifth year

Even though all students can learn, some undoubtedly need more time to master certain concepts. In an era when we talk about the merits of academic mastery, making it clear to young people that it’s okay to take an additional year to acquire the skills they’ll need after high school could pay off for them as well as for the state in the long run. While traditional high schools are likely to be the first choice, Ohio could also explore creating educational centers to focus on shoring up academic deficiencies or assisting students interested in acquiring industry credentials. This approach complements option 1 and reinforces the principle that all students—given time and the proper support—can reach Ohio’s graduation requirements. The drawback is that widespread use of an extra year, if it came to that, would carry a price tag. Yet that cost doesn’t begin to match the long term cost of students dropping out of college and struggling in the workplace.

3. Phase in the end-of-course exam requirements

Speaking of time, another option would be to give schools and students more time to adjust to higher expectations. The state board of education has specified that students must achieve eighteen cumulative points on the seven required EOC exams.[3] There’s nothing magical about the number eighteen, though. The state board could phase it in, maybe starting with fourteen or fifteen and adding a point every year or two. This would offer quick relief and would also deal with the issue transparently. Transparency is critical—and so is framing. Discussions around easing the path for the class of 2018 purported to suggest that easier was also better, fairer, and more holistic. Scarcely mentioned by policy makers was the fact that any student receiving a diploma under the alternative measure couldn’t objectively demonstrate competency in core academic skills. If Ohio decides to lower its academic demands, then those in power need to own that decision and speak the truth about it. 

4. Dual diploma

A less conventional option is to create a dual diploma arrangement. While we’d always prefer to keep one rigorous diploma with universally high expectations, the exception for the class of 2018 and the proposal to expand it to future years suggests that the political will of the governor, legislature, and state board may not make that possible. In that case, a dual diploma presents a creative option. The standard version would require students to complete state-mandated courses[4] and any other requirements adopted by a local school board. Each district might tailor this diploma to meet the needs of its community. A second diploma option, a “college- and career-ready” diploma, would be structured along the lines of Ohio’s graduation requirements before they were eased for the class of ‘18. Keeping this higher bar in place would preserve an incentive for both schools and students to achieve at the higher level needed for success in college and career.[5] But it would also ensure that young people who meet basic standards, as determined by their local schools, receive a credential when they exit high school. Schools and districts would need to report on the number of students reaching the state’s higher-level diploma. Students should also be encouraged to strive for the enhanced credential with a series of potential incentives that could range from official recognition, a remediation-free certificate for future post-secondary coursework, loan forgiveness opportunities, or even a dedicated scholarship fund.

5. Combination of academic and non-academic indicators

Finally, Ohio could consider something akin to the graduation pathway that Indiana is implementing for its class of 2023. While deserving of a more detailed analysis (coming soon in a future Ohio Gadfly), the Hoosier State will require all students to 1) meet curricular requirements; 2) learn and demonstrate employability skills; AND 3) complete some type of postsecondary competency like achieving certain test scores or earning recognized credentials. This approach differs from Ohio’s alternative pathway for the class of 2018 in its requirement for employability skills to be demonstrated in addition to, rather than in place of, academic competency. In addition, Indiana did a fine job in identifying achievements under its competency requirement that could translate quickly into successful entry into the workforce (CTE Concentrator, recognized apprenticeship), the military (ASVAB passage), or postsecondary education (ACT/SAT scores). The upside of this proposal is that it doesn’t eliminate the requirement of students to demonstrate competencies that lead to success after high school but instead requires a blend of academic and non-academic options.

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Whatever option Ohio pursues, we need to be true to our principles. All students can learn, incentives matter, life demands more than ever, and education remains the surest path to prosperity. Most importantly, we must remember that the passport an education provides needs to be more than a piece of paper. It’s a mark of preparation, not a rite of passage. If we forget that, any value we place on education—and by extension a diploma—will disappear.

[1] Administered in the tenth grade, OGTs were regularly panned for measuring eighth-grade-level skills.

[2] In addition to performance on EOC exams, students can also receive a diploma for a remediation-free ACT/SAT score or an industry credential with passing marks on a workforce readiness assessment.

[3] Students receive anywhere from a 1 to a 5 on EOC exams.

[4] Twenty credits are currently required under state law.

[5] While not discussed here, Ohio does offer an honors diploma for students who achieve far beyond the college- and career-ready level. This proposal would not alter that framework.


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