Guest commentary: Lawmakers should reject state board call for retreat on graduation requirements

Jack Archer

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.

On January 9, the State Board of Education again gave advocates of career and college readiness cause for dismay. With just one dissenting vote, the board adopted a resolution recommending that the legislature extend to the Classes of 2019 and 2020 the much-derided high school graduation alternatives established last year—also upon the board’s recommendation—for the Class of 2018.

It is difficult to add much to what’s already been said about the softened graduation requirements that the board would now extend to the following two graduating classes. In short, they permit an Ohio student to obtain a high school diploma without demonstrating the minimum academic competencies needed to be successful in post-secondary education and employment. These requirements are a big step back from the much more rigorous standards adopted by the legislature in 2009, which still provided appropriate flexibility for students who might wish to choose a different route to a diploma.

All this to avert a “graduation apocalypse” that never truly materialized. ODE data show that 77 percent of students in the Class of 2018 are on track to graduate without the additional options, far higher than initially projected. A staff presentation at the November board meeting also showed that by the end of their sophomore year, approximately 66 percent of students in the Class of 2019 have already met end-of-course test requirements, which is approximately the same as students in the Class of 2018 at the end of their sophomore year. Taken together, the data fairly shout the question of just what problem the board is solving by proposing to extend the dubious alternatives for this year’s graduating class to the next two. 

In its narrow focus on how many students will and won’t “walk” on commencement day, the state board lost sight of the very purpose of a high school diploma. As board member Kara Morgan said the day of the vote, “The ultimate outcome isn’t high school graduation but success of those students who graduate high school in the future.” That Dr. Morgan couldn’t find one other member of the 19-member board to agree is discouraging.

The board says it needs more data on the additional pathways put in place last year before it can assent to ending them. This is a cry often heard from decision-makers who’d just as soon avoid making decisions. It doesn’t take data to know that showing up for school and holding down a part-time job are not a demonstration of preparation for success beyond high school. 

The board’s action has several unintended consequences. First, it raises still more doubt for children, parents, and educators about the standards to which students will be held. When a child enters the ninth grade, she should have reasonable certainty about what will be required of her to graduate within four years. By reversing its position that the softened requirements were only meant for the Class of 2018, the board causes everyone to wonder how many additional changes are in store. 

Second, it provides an “out” for legislators of weaker resolve to sidestep their responsibility. The board is charged by statute to base any requirements for graduation “upon demonstration of mastery of knowledge and skills through competency-based learning models.” The recommendations put forth by the board clearly do not fulfill this responsibility.  

Third, it puts Ohio at a disadvantage compared to other states. At the board’s December meeting, ODE provided a helpful analysis of graduation requirements in various other states. This analysis indicated that although some states with testing requirements for graduation required activities in addition to evidence of academic proficiency, none offered them in place of it. While a more detailed analysis would be needed to validate this conclusion, the ostensibly one-time provisions for Ohio’s Class of 2018 do indeed seem weak in comparison with other states. Massachusetts, for instance, is widely recognized as the nation’s highest performer in K-12 education. While there are multiple reasons for the “Massachusetts Miracle,” one of them is undoubtedly the state’s high standards and expectations—as well as its commitment to stick to its plan despite continual pressures to retreat.

The General Assembly must reject the recommendation of the State Board of Education to perpetuate the soft, “one-time” alternatives given to the Class of 2018. The state’s original vision of high standards with flexibility and of demonstrated readiness for college and career is still the right one for Ohio. We should stick with the plan.

Jack Archer served as Director of Basic Education Oversight at the Washington State Board of Education until his retirement in 2016. He lives in Fairview Park.