More than 140,000 Ohio students are preparing to enter their senior year of high school, but for thousands of them, the year won’t end with a walk across a stage in a cap and gown. That is unless lawmakers move the graduation goal post once again.
It’s a lingering question that’s creating uncertainty for rising seniors in the state’s high schools.
Ja’Mya and Kenmore-Garfield’s Class of 2019
Sixteen-year-old Ja’Mya Goley is about a month away from starting her senior year at Kenmore-Garfield High School in Akron.
She’s a cheerleader and says her favorite subject is science- forensics and biology. She’s anxious about the upcoming school year.
“They say your senior year goes by faster than your junior year, and my junior year flew by so I’m just nervous,” Ja’Mya said.
That nervousness, though, it’s not about actually graduating. Ja’Mya has gotten 20 points on Ohio’s 7 end of course exams, and you only need 18 to meet the state testing requirement for a diploma.
But in her class of 170 at Kenmore-Garfield, 120 students haven’t met that requirement yet.
“They’re going to keep taking the test until…” Principal Frank Kalain said, “you know until…”
He never finished the thought, but went on to explain all 120 students will receive special interventions this school year to help prepare them to retake the exams in October and April.
Those interventions are online learning modules that most students will take during a study hall period.
The Class of 2019 is the first to face these new, more rigorous tests that most need to graduate.
Students can also complete a certificate in a career tech field, a requirement that often takes several semesters to meet, or achieve a remediation-free score on the ACT or SAT, which Kalain said doesn’t help many.
“If a kid can’t pass these tests, how are they going to pass the ACT to be college ready?” he said.
Ohio’s New Graduation Requirements
The Class of 2018-- which should have been the first required to meet the new standards-- was given some alternative options after the Ohio Department of Education discovered a third of them couldn’t meet the more rigorous requirements.
The state Board of Education has requested the alternative pathways be extended to the Classes of 2019 and 2020, but the chair of the Senate Education Committee said in April that’s unlikely.
Tom Gunlock, former president of the Ohio Board of Education, said that’s a good thing.
“I think we’re shortchanging our students by not demanding more from them,” he said.
Gunlock was the board’s president when the new graduation standards were approved in 2014.
He said the previous Ohio Graduation Test was too easy, requiring students to master 8th grade level content, while the new tests are at a 10th grade level.
Now students have to prove they’ve learned in high school, he said, and the state shouldn’t bend, even if that means taking a hit to the overall graduation rate.
“Everybody keeps coming back and saying, ‘Well, 100 percent of our kids aren’t going to graduate’,” he said, “and that was never the case in the first place.”
“I’m all for 100 percent of our kids graduating with an education, not 100 percent of our kids graduating just for a participation trophy,” Gunlock added.
Finding Fairness in Graduation Requirements
Across the country, states are struggling to find the requirements that prove students have in fact received the level of education Gunlock is pushing for.
Jennifer Zinth, with the nonpartisan policy group the Education Commission of the States, said no one has found the silver bullet, but many are ending testing requirements.
“States have been moving away from so-called exit exams over the last several years,” she explained, “exit exams being state set exams that students are required to pass in order to graduate from high school.”
But for incoming seniors in Ohio, those testing requirements likely won’t change.
Only the General Assembly has the ability to adjust them and the statehouse has already been shuttered for the legislature’s summer break.
At Kenmore-Garfield, Principal Kalain said 30 seniors are just one or two points away from meeting the testing requirement and it’s expected they can do it during re-testing this year.
For the other 90 of her classmates, Ja’Mya said the heavy dependence on exams isn’t fair.
“We spend all this time in school, you know, getting good grades, coming to school on time, doing what we’re supposed to do,” she said, “but when it comes to tests, a lot of us [are] not good at tests. It’s a lot of pressure put on us.”
Of all the senior activities, Ja’Mya said she’s most excited for her actual graduation ceremony, but there’s a chance as many as half of her classmates won’t make it there.
This story was produced in collaboration with the Education Writers Association as part of the New to the Beat Program. Editing support was also provided by Ben Felder of The Oklahoman.