This blog originally appeared as an editorial in today’s edition of the Columbus Dispatch.
The Ohio Senate just voted to allow the class of 2018 to receive diplomas without demonstrating proficiency in a single academic subject area. The competence-free graduation option, which came from recommendations made by the State Board of Education under pressure from local school superintendents, would award students a diploma upon meeting just two of eight conditions.
These include softballs like attending school regularly, obtaining a 2.5 senior-year grade-point average or completing community service. Show up, do a nominal number of assignments or a few months of part-time volunteer work, and the diploma is yours. Forget about setting a pitifully low bar; Ohio is about to remove it altogether.
It’s important to remember why, decades ago, Ohio and many other states decided to set competency-based graduation requirements in the first place. Namely, too many local school districts were willing to hand out diplomas that their graduates could not read, to young adults who had made it to 18 with the reading, writing, and math skills of grade-school students. The system had failed them.
The problem was most pernicious for poor and minority students, who were much more likely to be marched through school, year after year, without any responsible adults making sure they had actually mastered the material. The reforms of the past quarter-century were meant to ensure some basic level of equity — to guarantee that no Ohio child was simply passed along whether their schools had taught them essential skills or not. Graduation requirements were a key part of the strategy.
And there has been real progress as a result. In 2005, only 24 percent of Ohio students met the ACT’s college readiness benchmarks; by 2016, that number had risen to 33 percent.
Sadly, we still have a long way to go until we can look every Ohio student in the eye and say that we did right by them. The “rising tide of mediocrity” described by the Nation At Risk report in 1983, the year I was born, has not ebbed. Roughly one in three Ohio high-school graduates arrives at college wholly unprepared, requiring remediation in math or reading. And those are the students who actually attend college. The tide of mediocrity has continued to swell; the only difference is that we’ve found larger and sturdier islands of denial to shelter us from the waves.
Policymakers should be asking themselves how to ratchet up expectations and ensure that more schools rise to the occasion to help their students meet them. Instead, by “fixing” Ohio’s graduation “crisis,” they are embracing state-sanctioned low expectations, a resignation that we think students simply aren’t capable. Despite being cloaked in language about “flexibility” and the need to acknowledge students’ “other accomplishments”— as if personal triumphs or character traits will compensate for an inability to read or do math — Ohio policymakers are imposing a solution that most of us would never accept for our own children.
The State Board of Education justified its decisions based partially on the “potential unintended consequences to the class of 2018.” But what are the unintended consequences of expecting so very little of our students? How can Ohio leaders say that all children deserve an excellent education, no matter their family background or stake in life, and then turn around and expect next to nothing of them?
Don’t mistake political expediency for benevolence: There’s nothing compassionate about diminished expectations. I say this not only as an education policy analyst or a former public school teacher, but as a first-generation college graduate. I was a child who could have been written off in the same manner that Ohio lawmakers are set to do to scores of young people. Good intentions don’t matter when the stakes are so high.
The message we send matters immensely. We either signal to our students that they’re capable of reaching great heights, or we perpetuate a dangerous belief that they’re not resilient enough, not hardworking enough, not brilliant enough, not capable enough. It’s critical that the legislature reject the Senate’s proposed graduation alternative. If they refuse, Gov. John Kasich needs to stand up for the belief that all kids can learn, and veto these changes.