What could more graduation rule changes mean for the Class of 2019?

The state school board on Monday began discussion of long-term changes to Ohio’s high school graduation requirements, possibly extending Class of 2018 options like senior projects, strong attendance and minimum GPAs to the class of 2019 and beyond.

Deputy Superintendent John Richard ran through three broad options from a “concept paper,” asking state board members for feedback with the hope that the Ohio Department of Education could make a proposal to the state legislature by March.

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“The concern with students in the Class of 2019 and beyond, is are we capturing enough (students) in our three traditional pathways who may not necessarily be our best test-takers,” Richard said. But he added that the state would want any new options to be “equivalent in rigor.”

To understand how much debate and change has roiled Ohio’s graduation system in the past few years, consider this: Richard called the three diploma pathways Ohio’s “traditional” system, but that route is actually so new that it has yet to graduate any students — the Class of 2018 is the first group it applies to.

Here’s a refresher:

** For more than a decade, ending with the Class of 2017 that graduated six months ago, Ohio students had to pass 20 classroom credits plus the Ohio Graduation Test to get a diploma.

** The Class of 2018 was supposed to be the first class governed by a three-path diploma system. Students still needed to pass 20 classes, but then they could choose between a) meeting certain point requirements on high school end-of-course exams, b) earning a “remediation-free” score on the ACT or SAT, or c) earning certain job credentials plus a passing score on a workforce readiness test.

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** But while Class of 2018 students were finishing their junior year, their new graduation system was changed again, because people feared huge numbers of them wouldn’t graduate. Now those current high school seniors can go yet another route, meeting two of nine markers that include 93 percent senior-year attendance, a 2.5 GPA in at least four full-year senior-year courses, a senior-year “capstone” project, or 120 hours of senior-year work or community service.

The debate that began Monday deals with the Class of 2019 and beyond. The concept paper Richard mentioned offered three broad approaches, all of which would still require students to complete 20 course credits.

First, the state could keep the status quo by requiring students to achieve a passing score on one of the three test-based pathways. Richard mentioned the possibility that the required scores on that system could be phased in.

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The second option was some form of system like the Class of 2018 currently has, with non-test measures such as a certain high school GPA or job-readiness measure qualifying students for a diploma. Richard said if that route was adopted, the state would need to approve certain “guardrails,” such as minimum standards for a qualifying senior project.

The third option in the concept paper would allow for some type of performance-based qualification for a diploma. Richard gave the example of a student who fell short on the state math tests doing a guided data analysis project, or a student needing test points in English using a prose or poetry project to demonstrate their knowledge in that area.

Richard said when the three options were floated to groups of district superintendents, many of them supported the second option as a potential permanent solution. He said there is some national momentum behind the third option, but it would require professional training in many local districts to implement it.

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State board members had mixed reactions to the proposals, with many circling back to the question of what a diploma is supposed to mean in the first place.

Charlotte McGuire, who represents much of the Dayton area on the state board, said she supports some form of the second option, which has non-test pathways to a diploma.

“Teachers know their students,” McGuire said. “No two children are alike, and … we need to support student success for self-sufficiency.”

Laura Kohler of suburban Columbus said Ohio’s diploma standards have to include some minimum standard level in basics like reading math computation and science. Pat Bruns, who represents Warren County and much of Cincinnati, urged state officials to study best practices from around the country before making a decision.

State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, agreed with Bruns on that front. Lehner also argued that the current “remediation-free” score required on the ACT or SAT to earn a diploma is too high. She said she understands it as a tool for colleges, but questioned why that high standard is used as a high school graduation pathway.

The state board is expected to discuss the graduation issue in detail at its December meeting.

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