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Are graduation requirements too tough?

New Ohio rules will up rate of those denied diplomas

By BILL BUSH and CATHERINE CANDISKY The Columbus Dispatch Published: April 9, 2017 3:41 PM

It sounded like a good idea three years ago when state government leaders instituted new graduation exams to make sure kids were prepared for college or jobs.

At least until last fall, when superintendents from across the state rallied at the Statehouse and state officials began to look at the sobering number of kids that could be denied a high school diploma next year when the new requirements are to take effect.

Some districts and charter schools could see graduation rates plunge by 60 to 70 percent, particularly those serving poor minority students. Some charters might not graduate a single student, according to projections compiled by the Ohio Department of Education in response to the superintendents' march.

The figures are expected to improve somewhat as more high school juniors meet the requirements in the coming year. However, that won't solve the crisis.

On Tuesday, state Superintendent Paolo DeMaria is to present the State Board of Education a solution: giving students who fall short on end-of-course exams the ability to earn a diploma for having good school attendance, maintaining a 2.5-grade-point average, having a job while going to school or performing community services. State lawmakers would have to approve the plan.

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But that won't erase data that reveal, two decades into the school accountability movement that created charter schoolsand vouchers, Ohio has a two-tiered education system based on income and race. Under the new tests, graduation rates would plummet for Ohio's poorest and heavily minority schools, with only 36 percent of juniors having met, or are on track to meet, the new benchmarks, according to the education department projections.

Charter schools, public schools operated privately that were once billed as a free-market solution to improving results, have the worst numbers in the state.

For example, the New Day Academy Boarding and Day School near Cleveland could see its graduation rate plunge from 61 percent to 0, the data project. At another charter, the Maritime Academy of Toledo, it could go from 62 percent to 3 percent.

Almost tied for last are the state's Big 8 urban districts, the only ones designated "very high student poverty" by the Ohio Department of Education. Columbus City Schools could go from graduating 74 percent of students to 37 percent. Dayton City Schools' graduation rate could go from 75 percent to 27 percent.

But it's far from just a big-city issue: 42 districts in counties all over the state -- rural, small-town and suburban -- would graduate less than half their current juniors under the new system.

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More than 86 percent of students in the state's wealthiest suburbs already have met, or are expected to meet, the new requirements. But that's still a 13 percentage-point drop for wealthy districts like Hilliard, Dublin and Worthington, considered by the state as "very low student poverty" schools. Just those three together would graduate almost 400 fewer seniors each year under the new tests.

So what's the answer? One solution considered by the state board was to just lower the 18-points needed to score on a series of tests so that more kids passed. The education department calculated the passing rates all the way down to 14 points, but the numbers apparently didn't improve enough. While the low-poverty suburban districts went back up to about 92 percent of seniors graduating, still only about half of poor urban and charter kids would graduate, documents show.

That wasn't a face-saving solution for state officials.

"What I want is to see if there are ways to in which kids can get additional credit for doing very constructive things. So if a kid is struggling to get a credit or something we send him to the dean and he goes and works over there with the cars. If he's doing something this is learning (he) should get some credit," Gov. John Kasich said in January during a speech to business leaders in Columbus.

"But what we don't want to do is to start willy-nilly lowering that standard because the diploma's got to mean something," the governor said. "We don't want to lower our graduation requirements but we also don't want to say to a bunch of kids, you've lost."

Giving kids extra credit is pretty much the solution DeMaria is presenting to the state board Tuesday during their monthly meeting in Columbus. It was recommended recently by a review panel the state school board appointed after scrapping plans to temporarily lower the points needed on end-of-course exams to graduate.

"It makes me wonder if the kids are any better off just getting kind of the cheap high school diploma," said Aaron Churchill, Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank warning against watering down the new standard.

"Why just start the cycle of low standards and low expectations again? It just makes you wonder 'Are we really preparing that many students for the next step in life?'"

State lawmakers approved new graduation requirements in 2014, promising to better prepare students for college and career, and responding in large part to concerns that about 40 percent of Ohio high school graduates attending Ohio public colleges and universities needed remedial work.

Beginning with the class of 2018, this year's juniors, students must accumulate at least 18 points of a possible 36 on seven high school end-of-course exams to graduate. Students also have the option of getting a remediation-free score on a college-entrance exam, or obtaining an industry credential to show they are ready for a job. The new requirements replaced the Ohio Graduation Test, which measured what students learned through eighth grade.


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