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New panel to study state graduation rules

Rather than soften Ohio’s controversial graduation standards, the state school board Tuesday delayed its decision, calling for the creation of a work group to study the system and report back to the state board in four months.

It seems likely that some changes will be made, as Tuesday’s resolution says the board “recognizes the need for a transition period” to the new graduation requirements that take effect for the Class of 2018.

“We have adequate data to tell us that where we are right now is going to create a major problem,” Senate Education Committee Chair Peggy Lehner said. “I think it’s solvable. I think there are some additional alternatives we can look at to make this work out for more kids.”

The new plan calls for a panel of up to 25 people “to consider alternative approaches, including proposed legislative and (state) board changes.”

State superintendent Paolo DeMaria is tasked with building the panel, which will include representatives chosen by the governor, state legislators, state and local school boards, superintendents, parents, teachers and others.

Changing system

For more than a decade, Ohio students have earned high school diplomas by earning a certain number of classroom credits, plus passing all five sections of the Ohio Graduation Test, which some educators criticized as being too easy.

Starting with the Class of 2018, students still need 20.5 course credits, but they have three options on the testing side. They can earn at least 18 out of 35 points on the new, harder end-of-course exams in English, math, science and social studies. They can earn a “remediation-free score” on the ACT or SAT. Or they can earn an approved industry credential and a passing score on a workforce-readiness test.

Current high school juniors have been working toward that goal for years, but controversy over those end-of-course test scores threw the system into chaos this year. Some educators said the state graduation rate would plummet because of the new tests, from the current 83 percent to as low as 60 percent.

On Tuesday, Ohio Department of Education executives repeated data presented last month, saying that roughly 66 percent of current juniors were on track after two years of high school, and “highly likely” to earn the 18 test points needed to graduate.

Chris Woolard, ODE’s senior executive director for accountability, stressed that the data was preliminary, but said the estimates are conservative.

“That 66 percent is not a projected graduation rate,” Woolard said repeatedly. “It’s safe to assume that the actual graduation rate would be higher. And I would hope it would be more than just a fraction higher.”

Woolard pointed to additional students who would reach 18 points via test retakes, or graduate via the industry credential pathway, or are exempt from testing and can graduate without 18 points, among others.

But House Education Committee Chair Andrew Brenner questioned the base validity of the state tests, and therefore their use in deciding graduation standards. Board member Stephanie Dodd asked for the state to research the disconnect on students who earn solid grades in their school classes, but struggle on state tests.

New study group

The study group plan passed overwhelmingly, but board members had significant concerns in the seven hours of debate that preceded the vote.

Several members, including Ron Rudduck of Wilmington, argued that students in the Class of 2018 need certainty on their graduation requirements now — not months down the road.

Dodd pointed out that school districts also need time to set up staffing and schedules and remediation plans for next year. If the state board doesn’t even hear recommendations from the work group until April, the graduation system for the Class of 2018 may not be finalized until after those students finish their junior year.

Dodd and frequent ideological foe C. Todd Jones were in rare agreement, saying the state board was abdicating its responsibility by passing off this review to an outside group.

But the focus frequently came back to students. Top Department of Education officials began the day with a long presentation on Class of 2018 test scores so far.

Impact on students

Dodd introduced a resolution that would have lowered the graduation standard from 18 test points to 14, but it was voted down in committee. She also called for additional graduation opportunities, especially in the career tech pathways.

Lehner agreed with the general idea of offering more alternatives.

“It could be the number of points, or it could be things we haven’t even looked at,” said Lehner, R-Kettering. “I’ve had some superintendents for example, say, don’t change the total points, change the cut score. And then every year have that number go up.”

Several state board members expressed concern with the large number of students in high-poverty urban districts like Dayton who are not on track to graduate. While the statewide data showed 66 percent of juniors on track after two years, preliminary data for Dayton Public Schools had only 27 percent on track.

Tom Gunlock, who announced Tuesday that he will not serve as state board president next year, said if the board is going to come up with a new plan, it has to fit everyone.

“We have to come up with a solution that is fair for all the kids in the state,” he said.

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