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The Race to Change Ohio's High School Graduation Standards

photo of the Ohio Board of Education
The Ohio Board of Education (pictured) is faced with a third of high school students not on track to graduate with new standards.

High schools around the state are facing a crucial dilemma as about a third of their students are not on track to graduate. That’s based on the new graduation standards that begin with the class of 2018.

Leaders are scrambling to find a way to remedy the approaching crisis.

The meeting of the State Board of Education in Columbus this week was not our typical monthly meeting. This time, the futures of thousands of students were potentially on the line, as board members debated what to do with Ohio’s high-school graduation requirements.

“Equip them with what they need to succeed.”

At a circle of tables speaking to more than a dozen board members, State School Superintendent Paolo DeMaria mulled over what it means to provide a good education before presenting the board with two ways to help more high schoolers get their diplomas.

A crisis by 2018?
The current requirements ask students to get a good score over the course of seven different final exams, accomplish a credited work study, or score well on the SAT or ACT. These more challenging standards were developed just three years ago.

Many school leaders, from teachers to administrators, say the state has an impending crisis on its hands. As of now, more than 47,000 high school juniors are not on track to graduate under the standards that go into effect starting with the class of 2018.

“There is a certain urgency to making progress because, as was stated very well by superintendents and others who testified before this board, it’s important to give clarity to students who are about to finish their junior year and proceed into their senior year about what the expectations are," DeMaria said.

Here’s what DeMaria would like to see: Take the current standards when it comes to testing. But then offer eight other conditions for graduation and students would have to accomplish two of them.

Reflecting learning
Those conditions include attending 93 percent of their classes senior year, getting a 2.5 GPA, or completing an independent senior project.

Republican Sen. Peggy Lehner of Kettering chair the Senate Education Committee. She’s been following the looming graduation crisis closely and says these recommendations are an improvement.

“A student who’s in their seat 93 percent of the time is going to be learning. and I think that’s the sort of thing we want to reflect,” she said.

She says it’s important to have high standards so a high school diploma still means something, but softening them for the class of 2018 is only fair.

“I think it certainly helps with the transition period; there are just things that take time to adjust to -- a new test -- so we don’t want to artificially leave kids out of getting a diploma so I think it’s a very reasonable solution,” she said.

Shuffling through a stack of papers just outside of the conference room is Chad Aldis, who’s preparing to speak against the new recommendations.

“What they appear to be recommending is essentially a diploma for students for just showing up,” he said.

Aldis is with the pro-charter school group the Fordham Institute, which analyzes and researches academic achievement. He argues that offering conditions based on attendance and independent projects takes away from scoring students based on aptitude.

“No academic requirements? No proficiency in math, language arts, social studies for graduating from high school and I think that will remove some of the incentive to try to get students to a higher bar, to get them to perform better, and try to prepare them for what comes after high school.”

Back inside the conference room, most of the state board of education seems to disagree with Aldis’ take. They voted to move the new requirements on to the next step.

The board still needs approval from Ohio lawmakers in order to officially make those changes - which means the fates of many high schoolers in the state will move out of this conference room and over to the Statehouse for a new round of meetings to begin.