State board's graduation fix falls woefully short

Note: This blog originally appeared in a slightly different form as a guest commentary in the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

The State Board of Education recently advised the legislature to make changes to Ohio’s new and more rigorous graduation requirements amid concerns from school people about lower graduation rates. The board’s recommendations, based on a workgroup convened by the board, are out, and they’re deeply disquieting. Put into practice, they’d break the repeated promise of policy makers to raise expectations for Ohio’s 1.7 million students.

Currently, students in the class of 2018 and beyond have three paths to a diploma. They may: 1) achieve a passing cumulative score on seven end-of-course (EOC) exams in the four core subjects of math, English, social studies, and science; 2) achieve a “remediation-free” ACT or SAT score; or 3) complete career and technical education requirements that include earning an industry recognized credential. These are stronger than the state’s old graduation standards, which included the antiquated, middle-school level Ohio Graduation Tests (OGT) and are a key part of the Buckeye State’s robust effort to ensure that students leave high school ready to succeed in college or start a career.

Unfortunately, what the board suggests would not just undercut Ohio’s efforts to raise the bar for all students—it would remove the bar entirely. Its recommendations would make it virtually impossible for colleges and employers to know whether a young person has truly gained the knowledge and skills needed to be successful after high school. This diploma devaluation will hurt all students, but it will sting most for young people who, through determination, ambition, and hard work, are now meeting the higher state expectations.

The recommendations ignore the end-of-course exams and would let students graduate if they meet any two of these eight conditions:

  • 93 percent attendance during senior year.
  • 2.5 grade point average for senior year courses.
  • Complete a “capstone” senior project.
  • Complete 120 hours of work/community service during senior year.
  • Earn 9 points on the WorkKeys exams (a job skills test).
  • Earn an industry recognized credential.
  • Complete a College Credit Plus course.
  • Complete an AP/IB course and earn credit-bearing score on the AP/IB exam.

The last two options are likely irrelevant for this purpose. College Credit Plus (CCP) is specifically designed for pupils who are supposed to be college ready and AP/IB courses are intended for academically advanced pupils and require rigorous final exams. Students qualifying under CCP, AP, or IB should be expected to stroll through the EOC version of graduation requirements. The WorkKeys and industry credential alternatives are geared more towards students struggling to meet the graduation requirements under the career and technical education pathway rather than end of course exam pathway.

The problem lies in the other four options recommended by the State Board of Education.

  • Student attendance is no more than showing up at school without regard to whether anything is learned there. Appallingly, this alternative gives credence to the archaic idea that student learning can be gauged by “seat time” rather than by demonstrated mastery of academic content. 
  • Grade point average is especially problematic in an era of widespread grade inflation. We can’t be certain that a 2.5 GPA indicates that anyone is truly ready for college or career. A student could get barely passing grades in low-level courses and receive credit towards the diploma. This option also gives schools a perverse incentive to award students higher grades to boost their GPAs with no external monitoring or audit of either student or school. One may bleakly recall the episode when Columbus City Schools got caught manipulating grades to lift their graduation rates. In that case, district officials retroactively changed failing grades to passing, giving students course credit needed for graduation.
  • Senior capstone projects suffer from similar problems as GPAs. Unless the state sets rigorous standards for capstone projects—including some type of enforcement or audit mechanism—schools have an incentive to approve shoddy work. Furthermore, having this option available might pressure schools to mandate capstone projects for all seniors when it’s not clear that every student would benefit.
  • Work experience/community service can certainly benefit young people and help instill important values and skills needed for future success. Yet this option calls for a relatively modest commitment—equivalent to about six weeks of part-time work—and substitutes it for (rather than treating it as a supplement to) a student’s prowess in reading, writing, and math. The option also suffers from logistical nightmares, such as ensuring that all students have legitimate access to qualifying employment and service opportunities (and how to determine what qualifies) and how schools will track and verify their hours.

In sum, the State Board’s recommendations are awash in questionable options that are open to gaming and don’t assure us that young people are ready for success in college or career. They would undo the incentives currently in law for districts to focus on ways to improve their students’ mastery of math, government, history, science, and English. Students, especially low-income pupils who stand to benefit most from high expectations, will be the ultimate victims.

A far better alternative, as we’ve suggested before, is to create a tiered diploma system based on current graduation requirements. This wouldn’t cheapen Ohio’s diploma, but it would allow the state to issue different credentials based on the varied knowledge and skills with which students leave high school. Critically, an incentive would remain in place that can motivate students to reach a higher-level diploma that would signify to colleges and employers that they are well prepared for life after high school.

Ohio lawmakers should think twice—and twice again—before embracing these well-meant but ill-conceived recommendations. If the legislature goes along with the State Board of Education, it might as well confess that, when push comes to shove, preparing Ohio students for the demands of college and career is either too hard or not worth it. 

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