The State Board’s approach to graduation requirements fails the equity test

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The ongoing debate on what standards (if any) students in the class of 2019 should have to meet in order to receive a diploma has resulted in very little attention being paid to recent recommendations by the Ohio State Board of Education to change graduation requirements for the classes of 2022 and beyond. In response to clamors for a “long term fix” to graduation standards, the state board has proposed requirements based on criteria such as vaguely defined culminating student experiences (CSEs) that align with concepts of personalized learning—a term used throughout the board’s strategic plan and emphasized in the “each child” part of the plan’s title. The board’s ideas are also reflected in a recent Ohio Department of Education statement supporting the proposal: “Students, with their parents and teachers, will choose how they demonstrate their career, college, or life readiness...with options like an internship, capstone project, or culminating student experience.”

Within limits, it’s perfectly fine to tailor classroom instruction to the needs and interests of individual students. But the application of personalized learning to graduation standards is misguided, especially when viewed through the lens of educational equity—an important concept that the state board affirms as the “greatest imperative and number one principle” in its strategic plan.

Here’s the rub: The concept of equity insists that all students meet a baseline standard. Under equity principles, every young person should graduate possessing the foundational knowledge and skills that are imperative to lifelong success. Yet under state board’s graduation proposal, students would receive diplomas based on standards of widely varying rigor, failing to ensure that everyone who exits high school has demonstrated such competencies. Some would meet the more challenging exam-based and industry-credentialing criteria, while others would receive diplomas under a hodge-podge of subjective criteria, such as CSEs and grade point averages, which are based on different—and likely less stringent—local standards and norms.

The bewildering contradictions of the board’s approach are likely explained by its insufficient definition of equity. Consider how its strategic plan defines equity:

Each child has access to relevant and challenging academic experiences and educational resources necessary for success across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, family background, and/or income.

The statement appears non-controversial at face value. Who doesn’t want children to have access to “relevant and challenging academic experiences?” But let’s compare its definition with a couple others. Here’s how the Education Trust—one of the nation’s staunchest advocates for equity and led by President Obama’s second secretary of education John King—describes itself:

Fierce advocates for the high academic achievement of all students—particularly those of color or living in poverty.

The wording is important. Notice how EdTrust views equity as “high academic achievement,” not merely “access” to experiences. EdTrust asserts that its equity goal is for all students to achieve at high levels—a results-oriented approach. This is a more forceful stance than the state board, which believes that results don’t matter, as long as students have had the opportunity to achieve. That’s not the same thing as actually knowing how to read, write, and do math at high levels. Educational opportunities alone won’t get young people good-paying jobs or onto college campuses—achievement does.

Clearly, this isn’t a textbook definition. Let’s see how the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines equity.

Equity in education has two dimensions. The first is fairness, which basically means making sure that personal and social circumstances—for example gender, socio-economic status or ethnic origin—should not be an obstacle to achieving educational potential. The second is inclusion, in other words ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all—for example that everyone should be able to read, write, and do simple arithmetic.

The state board’s definition of equity, which includes language about “access” to educational opportunities regardless of background, mirrors OECD’s “fairness” dimension. But the board falls short on the “inclusion” part. OECD insists that equity means “ensuring a basic minimum standard of education for all.” Under its conceptualization, there must be a standard and it ought to apply to all. OECD goes further, saying that “everyone”—note again the universal language—"should be able to read, write, and do simple arithmetic.” Like EdTrust, OECD affirms that all students can and should achieve the knowledge and skills needed for adult success.

Fortunately, the State Board of Education does not have final say on graduation requirements. Rather, the Ohio legislature would have to pass statutory revisions to enact its proposal. As lawmakers mull it over, they should be deeply disturbed by the board’s flawed approach to educational equity that, under the banner of “personalization,” writes off some students as incapable of reaching the state’s academic or career-technical standards.

It’s true that each and every one of Ohio’s students is a uniquely talented individual. Respecting and cultivating different talents can be accomplished in many ways in K–12 education, including promoting schools of choice, mastery-based learning, and access to specialized coursework. But we must not allow a misguided zeal for personalization to cloud our thinking about equity. All Ohio students, no matter their background, have the innate ability to reach high academic or career-technical standards. Expecting anything less of some students fails the equity test.

 
 
Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.