The Ohio Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved changes to graduation rules for the Classes of 2019 and 2020. The bill moves on to the full Senate and House. JEREMY P. KELLEY/STAFF

Thousands of area high schoolers could graduate if these changes are signed into law

Ohio high school juniors and seniors are a step closer to gaining more avenues to graduate, which is expected to help thousands who are at risk earn their diploma.

The Ohio Senate Education Committee on Wednesday approved alternative graduation requirements for the high school Classes of 2019 and 2020. They would add options other than passing state tests.

School leaders said this fall that thousands more students than usual are at risk of not graduating this year under Ohio’s harder new state tests. Education groups have argued about whether the new tests are necessary to bring students up to a higher academic bar, or an unfair, unnecessary measure to earn a diploma.

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The graduation changes were added to House Bill 491 as an amendment, and that is the language that will move forward. Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said the bill will be considered today by the full Senate, where Lehner said there is strong support.

The Ohio House would still have to approve it as well before Gov. John Kasich could sign it into law. Legislators said last week they expect all those steps to happen before Christmas.

“I do think we need some objective standard to measure academic performance,” said Lehner, R-Kettering. “The test is one way to do that, but as you’ve heard from some witnesses, it isn’t always the only way to do it. We feel that these multiple pathways are creating several different ways for students to demonstrate minimum academic proficiency.

The bill would give current seniors the same graduation options that the Class of 2018 had. Students would still have to pass the required 20 classroom credits, take all state “end-of-course” tests and retake any English or math tests where they scored a 1 or 2 on the 5-point scale.

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But instead of needing certain scores on those tests, students could earn a diploma by meeting two of nine unrelated standards that include good senior-year attendance, strong senior-year classroom grades, work/service hours and a variety of other options. Students who already passed state tests would still qualify to graduate via that route, and career tech students would also have a non-test pathway.

The amendment applies a similar framework for the Class of 2020, but with a few tweaks. Work/service hours and “capstone projects” for Class of 2020 students would have to meet standards to be set next year by ODE, and the strong classroom grades option would apply to courses taken in both junior and senior year. Lehner said the attendance pathway would not be an option for Class of 2020 students.

The Fordham Institute, a prominent education think tank, continued its criticism of the changes to the graduation standards, saying that students “will be left to pay the ultimate price.”

JULY 2017: State OKs softer graduation rules for Class of 2018

DECEMBER 2017: Graduation rates rise; Ohio ranks low for black students

“The modern world economy demands more of its workers than ever before,” said Chad Aldis, Fordham’s vice president for Ohio policy and advocacy. “Unfortunately, instead of rolling up our sleeves and helping all Ohio graduates attain the skills necessary to earn a living wage and support a family, we’ve once again said that simply showing up is enough. If we believe that all students can learn, we owe it to them to provide the supports necessary to prepare them for the future.”

Lehner said legislators have heard repeatedly that the business community needs more workers with “soft skills” of regular attendance, communication and ability to work as part of a team. Asked why the attendance option was removed for the Class of 2020 given that input, Lehner said legislators went back and forth on the issue.

“It basically came down to, we had people on both sides of the arguments, so we split the baby – left it in for this year and took it out for 2020,” Lehner said.

Next year, the state legislature will consider long-term changes for the graduation requirements starting with the current sophomore class, based on recommendations from the Ohio Department of Education. ODE has already come up with such a plan that would allow students to earn a diploma by showing skills in a variety of ways, rather than just tests, in five areas — English, math, technology, other academic subjects and leadership/social development.

For example, a student might meet the English requirement via a state test but meet the math standard via GPA in school classes, and qualify in their other subjects and leadership via a deep project called a “culminating student experience.”

Lehner said the legislature wants more detail from ODE in the coming months before moving forward with legislation.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes we make in education policy is turning the ship too fast,” Lehner said. “Getting used to a test – for teachers to know what’s on the test and what students need to know, and to get comfortable with it – that takes a few years. … I think this three-year transition period is a lot better.

“We’re taking our time to work on the permanent fix and really weighing it back and forth. We’ll probably get some schools to try it out this year and give us some test runs, and hopefully we’ll end up with a better product.”

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