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Ohio graduation requirements under debate

Students in limbo

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Trumbull Career and Technical Center senior Hayli Dean, 18, of McDonald, is in the pre-nursing program at TCTC in Champion. Dean was unsure if she would be graduating next month because of changes to graduation requirements being debated by the state legislators in Columbus.

Debate about future requirements Ohio’s seniors must meet to graduate continues in Columbus, even after Ohio legislators just four months ago passed House Bill 491 outlining graduation guidelines for Ohio’s classes of 2019 and 2020.

“It is the intent of the General Assembly to engage in ongoing discussions to modify high school graduation requirements for students in the classes of 2020 and later,” according to language in the bill. “The recommendations shall include a long-term proposal for diploma requirements that reduces reliance on state testing, encourages local innovation, and supports student readiness for a career, college, and life. The recommendations also shall include a transition plan to allow time for implementation of the new requirements.”

The back-and-forth involving Ohio’s lawmakers and state educators has caused confusion for area school leaders.

Scott Kernen, guidance counselor with Newton Falls Exempted Village Schools, said when it comes to helping students work toward graduation, consistency is key.

“It’s frustrating because as a guidance counselor, we have to map out how students are going to graduate and I’m upset because we’re left to just wing it,” Kernen said. “The ODE needs to be consistent because it seems like every year something changes.”

This school year, changing graduation requirements had left some 500 Trumbull County seniors entering the 2018-19 year at risk of not graduating on time. Those students believed they were on previously selected pathways best-suited for them to receive a diploma through a vocational track that allowed them to avoid state testing requirements.

Trumbull Career and Technical Center senior Hayli Dean, 18, said she was nervous because, although she was on target to earn her STNA credential, she still wasn’t sure if she would be graduating in May due to a change in graduation requirements.

In the pre-nursing program, earning her STNA credential would give Dean the 12 industry credential points needed to graduate.

But that pathway to a diploma was in limbo until December — just a few months before her scheduled graduation — when Ohio legislators finally passed House Bill 491 to extend the previous graduation requirements to seniors in the classes of 2019 and 2020.

Dean said she’s relieved. She said she was drawn to the option of not having to rely on tests to graduate because she doesn’t perform well on tests.

“I’m not the best test taker,” Dean said.

Dean was not alone as changes to curriculum in Ohio put many students in danger of not meeting graduation requirements because the path they were on was going to no longer be offered. According to the Ohio Department of Education, some 500,000 seniors statewide were at risk of not graduating this spring.

Because of this, the State Board of Education recommended lawmakers delay action.

These at-risk students were taking a graduation requirement option that was not one of the original pathways — state tests, industry credentials and workforce readiness tests or college and career readiness tests such as the ACT or SAT. These students were either unable to meet these requirements or believed a different option was best for them, such as completing a capstone or using their Advanced Placement test scores to graduate.

But the delayed changes to state law affecting students in their senior year added significant stress to those preparing to graduate.

Paul Woodard, superintendent for Newton Falls Schools, said he’s heard many complaints from throughout the state about students not being able to graduate. “This gives us a couple more years to get things in place. There would’ve been thousands of students (statewide) not graduating if they implemented what they were going to. Thank God they extended it,” Woodard said.

STATE’S LATEST PLAN

Paul DeMaria, superintendent of Public Instruction for the Ohio Department of Education, said April 2 in testimony before the General Assembly he agrees with HB 491, but added the state board recommends the same requirements be extended to the Class of 2021.

Changes would be altered slightly for the 2022 class and then fully implemented with the 2023 class.

“The state board recommends that these new requirements begin with this year’s (freshmen) class, the graduating Class of 2022, with a simplified approach to the culminating student experience,” read his testimony.

The state school board also is calling for options that don’t rely on standardized testing. The board wants more options available for students to prove themselves in five subject areas — English, math, technology, other academic areas and leadership, reasoning and social skills.

“Ohio’s statutory graduation requirements are heavily reliant on standardized tests. While all students must take and pass certain high school classes, students also must choose one of three graduation pathways, each of which has a high-stakes, standardized testing component,” DeMaria said.

According to the ODE, this proposal contained recommended graduation requirements, which would work to provide students with both test-based and non-test-based options for demonstrating a readiness for career, college, the military or a self-sustaining profession. This customized way of demonstrating knowledge to satisfy graduation requirements may include test scores, a culminating student experience or other options. The new proposal comes from HB 491, which also requires the ODE to make recommendations for new permanent graduation requirements.

“Allowing students to have multiple options to graduate and not relying on standardized testing would benefit many high school students in Ohio,” said Arlo Brookhart, supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction with the Trumbull County Educational Service Center. “If there was a major change or overhaul in the graduation system, I would think that AIR testing would still be kept in place and remain an option for students. The ACT / SAT testing wouldn’t be affected since it is primarily used for college placement and is an option for graduation. I think the state would continue to keep that graduation option in place.”

Jodi Brown, a guidance counselor at Warren G. Harding High School, agreed.

“The alternative pathways are means of obtaining qualifications that they can control. It is a commitment to work and proves they can function in today’s world,” she said. “I, personally, do not think tests should be the final deciding factor on whether a student should graduate or not. I have students who should have graduated in previous years that are still testing. They are working in the community doing OK, but know the advantages of having that high school diploma.”

NON-TEST OPTIONS

The ODE has been discussing the graduation requirements and has agreed areas that need addressed include the importance of having non-standardized test-based options for students, developing a plan for early identification and support for students who are not “on track” to graduate, having a student planning process and continued emphasis on career focused activities for all students.

DeMaria, in his testimony, said he believes this new proposal will shift the high school experience away from a one-size-fits-all checklist.

“There is no standardized definition of success. Talent is jagged and our graduation requirements should support the workforce, academic, and life goals of each student. Legislation to enact this system will reduce the high stakes nature of state high school tests, return flexibility to local schools, and innovatively empower student learning,” DeMaria said. “I believe this proposal is more supportive of students, gives them more options for demonstrating what they know and are able to do, and better prepares them for what comes after high school. After all, the success of our students is the highest priority.”

As it stands, HB 491 extends the current requirements only through theClass of 2020, and unless additional legislation is passed, graduation requirements will revert back to the original three pathways for the classes of 2021 and beyond.

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