Four questions to answer before “fixing” Ohio’s graduation requirements

Image courtesy of Miami University

Tom Gunlock

NOTE: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

The State Board of Education (SBOE) recently recommended that the legislature soften graduation requirements and allow attendance, community service, and other non-academic items to replace test scores and allow students to graduate regardless of whether they meet existing graduation requirements. If the proponents of this change are to be believed, the state’s End of Course (EOC) tests (which replaced the Ohio Graduation Tests, or OGTs) are too hard for students—and will lead to nearly one-third of the Class of 2018 failing to graduate.  Though lowering standards is troublesome there is another—perhaps more alarming—reason to oppose this recommendation: the legislature is being asked to make a change without having all the facts. Here are a few questions that must be answered before the legislature can decide to lower the bar.

First, what does the most recent student data say?

The SBOE claims that a third of students in the Class of 2018 won’t graduate due to new EOC tests. But this claim rests solely on test results from students’ sophomore year, almost 12 months ago. If the SBOE possesses more recent data, they haven’t shared it–but that doesn’t change the fact that it makes little sense to change state law based on information that’s a year old. Later this summer, test results from students’ junior year—including American Government and American History test results that are typically taken in junior or senior year and “retakes” of previous examinations—will be available. These results are reflective of an entire additional year of learning, and could show serious score improvements and a higher number of students who are on-track to graduate. It would be wise to closely examine the 2016-17 results before such any serious decisions are made.

Second, how accurate are the predictions about the number of students who are off-track?

Although everyone agrees that we want every student to graduate, we must acknowledge that that Ohio does not presently have a 100% graduation rate. Instead, our current baseline is 83 percent—a baseline that should be used to calculate how many students are actually off-track. Assuming that close to 70% of students in the Class of 2018 have met or are on track to meet graduation requirements, there’s no way that a third of students are not graduating because of EOC tests. That means that only about 15 percent (or less) of students who we might expect to graduate are actually falling into the gap between on- and off-track.

Third, what role do changes to special education graduation requirements play?

Although it varies slightly year to year, approximately 15% of Ohio’s student population is identified as having a disability. Ohio is one of a handful of states that permits Individual Education Plans (IEP) teams to excuse students with disabilities from meeting all requirements for a regular diploma.  Most of these students are on IEPs not because they are intellectually disabled, but have been given plans because they need additional assistance from their teachers to meet state requirements for a regular diploma. This practice has led the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) to rate our state as ‘needs assistance’ on special education matters over the last several years. Beginning with the Class of 2018, the USDOE will no longer allow states like Ohio to count students with disabilities who do not meet the same requirements as their non disabled peers as graduates when determining the four-year cohort graduation rates.

We can’t pretend that we didn’t know how widespread this practice was, since the data is posted on ODE’s website. For example, the graduation rate in Dayton City Schools for the Class of 2015 is 75 percent. That figure is close to the average proficiency rate of OGT tests administered to those students in March of 2013. Compare that to the graduation rate for students with disabilities among the Class of 2015, which is just under 64 percent—even though their average OGT proficiency rate is only around 27 percent. I’m no mathematics scholar, but even I can see the numbers don't add up.

Other districts have similar gaps. Although we can’t say exactly how many students with disabilities statewide have previously been excused from meeting graduation rates, we do know that districts will soon no longer be able to count these students as graduates. It’s possible that this looming gap—and not issues with EOC exams—is the reason for some folks’ panic.

Fourth, how many students are on-track in the other two graduation pathways?

Often lost in all the discussion is the fact that EOC results are just one of three pathways to a diploma. The SBOE has yet to review or share data regarding how many students are on-track to graduate via the career tech or ACT/SAT pathway—and that’s a big problem, since those numbers could go a long way toward calming the fears of districts and parents with questions about EOC assessments.

The SBOE has the legal right to reduce the number of points required on EOC exams without the permission of the General Assembly. And yet they have not done so to date. Could it be that they have failed to act because they, too, are troubled by so many unanswered questions?

We raised the bar on high school graduation because too few of our students were prepared for success at the end of K-12 education. We do our children a great disservice if we lower the graduation requirements without having all of the available facts. The solution offered to the legislature should be rejected until these critical questions are answered.

Tom Gunlock is the former president of the state board of education.

Additional commentary on this issue from guest and staff contributors can be found on Ohio Gadfly Daily by clicking here, here, and here.