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New state high school graduation proposal offers menu of choices

September 18, 2018

New state high school graduation proposal offers menu of choices

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Proposed new graduation requirements for all state high school students would throw out the current “points” system based on test scores and let students pick from a menu of tasks beyond just tests to earn a diploma.

The more personalized proposal shared with the state school board this morning would give students several choices to satisfy the state in each of five areas - English, math, technology skills, reasoning and social-emotional skills, and “well-rounded content” of all other subjects.

Students would have to fulfill one pathway in each area, along with passing classes, to graduate.

Choices in the five areas include meeting state-set goals like earning certain scores on state tests or passing a proposed online state course in the subject. But they also include more subjective and district-determined targets on things like final “culminating” projects and grade point average.

See the state’s full description below, from items shared with the board today.

The proposal comes from a panel set by the board and State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria that has been meeting for months. If it gains board approval later this fall, the plan would need a vote of the state legislature to take effect.

“This is a work in progress,” DeMaria told the board, noting that details must be worked out if the concept is approved.

He said the state would have to set score targets, though some have been suggested in the documents below, and clarify exactly what some of the pathways entail, particularly the new “culminating experience.” 

“We at all costs must avoid any route as being seen as the easier path,” DeMaria said, warning the plan would be “doomed” if that happens.

Because the plan would take a few years to implement and would ideally start applying to an incoming freshman class, it does not address widespread concerns about the current senior class and how many seniors will graduate if they are held to the current test-score-based requirements.

The board has already asked the state legislature to extend special alternate requirements that were provided for the class of 2018, but the legislature has not acted yet.

DeMaria said the special committee also prefers extending the alternate requirements for the classes of 2019 and 2020, while details of the new plan are worked out.

Board member Stephanie Dodd asked fellow board members to think about possibly reducing the number of test score “points” the class of 2019 needs to graduate - a reduction the board can make without a law change - just in case the legislature can’t pass a change when it reconvenes after the November election.

Dodd said she wants to be prepared with a backup plan so that some change can be made for this year’s seniors by the end of the year.

“It is not my preferred plan,” Dodd said.“It is not my ideal. But it is an option.”

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, a Kettering Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said legislators will be “dead set” against any reduction in test score requirements and will consider it a watering-down of expectations.

“I hope this will encourage you and your colleagues to just extend those alternate pathways instead,” Dodd replied, laughing as she said it.

“I hear you,” said Lehner.

The Ohio Department of Education shared some data with the board about how much the class of 2018 used the alternate paths - about 30 percent - based on a limited survey set out by the state. But DeMaria stressed that number should not be used to extrapolate statewide numbers.

As we reported in July, about a third of seniors in Akron and Columbus could not meet state test targets and used alternate pathways instead. In Cleveland, about half of 2018 graduates needed to use the temporary paths.

The board will see more details about the class of 2018 in November and December, and will see some preliminary test score results for the class of 2019 in October.

The alternate pathways for 2018 were controversial because they allowed students to avoid having good scores on state tests by having strong attendance senior year or completing a “capstone” project that was barely defined by the state.

The new proposal is drawing similar concerns, since class grades and how harshly a “culminating” project is graded will be up to districts and not a uniform state standard.

“I am concerned that having the GPA option is removing some of the rigor,” said board member Kara Morgan, who worried that teachers who don’t fully understand the state standards will pass students that don’t meet them.

Chad Aldis of the Fordham Institute, a right-leaning education advocacy group,  was bothered by the proposal. Fordham backs using tests to hold students to a standard.

“People were graduating with high GPAs for a long time and we were finding that people were graduating without the skills to be successful,” Aldis said after the meeting. “This likely throws us back to the time when high school GPA is the only thing that matters.”

He worried that low-income students will be hurt most by being passed, even when their skills are not up to par.

DeMaria, though, disagreed.

“The biggest amount of grade inflation happens in wealthy suburban districts,” DeMaria told the board, even if that is contrary to what most think.

Board member Laura Kohler called the proposal “refreshing.”

“We want our Ohio diploma to mean something to employers,” Kohler said. “But rigor can be demonstrated in multiple ways.”

DeMaria was enthusiastic in proposing the “Culminating Student Experience” for four of the five required areas. 

He presented it as a “project or set of activities and experiences to be completed by a student that would allow the student to demonstrate a collection of knowledge and skills that affirm a student’s readiness for post-high school success.”

These can include a major research or portfolio project, community service, completion of a work-based learning experience like an internship, completing a career-technical program, completing a set of college classes or earning the new Ohio Means Jobs Readiness seal.

“You have some sort of project that you take on that aligns with your passions, your interest and aspirations,” DeMaria said, as a means of showing mastery in a subject instead of with a test. “Rather than being locked in a room for an hour to write, it would be something you work on all year.”

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