NOTES: The Thomas B. Fordham Institute occasionally publishes guest commentaries on its blogs. The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of Fordham.

This piece was originally published in the Dayton Daily News.

When you ask most people, “What should a high school diploma represent?” They’ll tell you, “It means a student has a 12th grade education.” If only that was the truth. Unfortunately, in Ohio, it’s not.

This year’s diploma recipients will have completed 15 required high school courses and at least five elective courses. The required courses include four years of English, four years of math, three years of science, and three years of social studies. In addition, students will have scored proficient on the five sections (reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies) of the Ohio Graduation Test. The dirty little secret, though, is that the Ohio Graduation Test is a test of 8th grade knowledge. Do most students graduate with more than an 8th grade education? Of course. But an 8th grade education is the minimum.

Back in 2010, Ohio made a decision. An eighth grade education isn’t enough. An eighth grade education is not enough for our students to succeed in what comes after high school – life, further education, and career. It’s not enough to ensure the continued economic success of our communities and our state.

Researchers that study the changing nature of the U.S. workforce say loudly and clearly that today, and into the future, more and more people will need some education past high school to get a job that pays a living wage and leads to a life-sustaining career. That doesn’t mean a student has to go to college – it could mean a certificate program, an apprenticeship, or an employer training program. One thing is clear; you cannot make a living or build a career working a minimum wage job! And yet, for too many young Ohioans a minimum wage job is where they’re headed with the equivalent of an eighth grade education.

In 2010, Ohio set in motion higher standards, and the expectation that in order to earn a diploma students should demonstrate at least a 10th grade level of learning to earn a diploma. Our districts and schools have known this for 6 years, and the expectation is that they have been ramping up and providing the educational experiences necessary so that this year’s junior class can be the first class to meet this higher standard. In addition to taking the required courses students will need to take seven tests over the four years of high school (instead of the five test required previously). These are tests of freshman and sophomore level English, freshman and sophomore mathematics (Algebra and Geometry), American History, American Government, and Biology.

If you think about it, it doesn’t really seem to be so daunting. During the four years, a student is in high school, they’ll take at least four years of English. You’d think that educating a student sufficiently to pass tests of freshman and sophomore level English should be pretty easy. Similarly, students will have to take four years of math courses. Is it unreasonable to expect students to acquire the knowledge and skills needed to pass Algebra I and Geometry tests by the end of four years? The remaining tests, American Government, American History and Biology are subjects that have been required courses for years. Students have multiple opportunities to take each test. And students don’t even have to score at a proficient level on every test. Let me tell you what the cut scores are for each of the 7 tests.

  • Algebra 1 Basic 27% Proficient 38%
  • Geometry Basic 22% Proficient 35%
  • Integrated Math 1Basic 27% Proficient 40%
  • Integrated Math 2 Basic 26% Proficient 39%
  • English Language Arts 1Basic 40% Proficient 52%
  • English Language Arts 2 Basic 35% Proficient 48%
  • Biology Basic 26% Proficient 30%
  • American History Basic 31 Proficient 42%
  • American Government Basic 27% Proficient 39%

Only one of those cut scores has a cut score greater than 50%.  Each and everyone of them would be an F in any classroom in this state.

How are some school districts reacting to this reality? The districts most committed to students are saying, “We agree with the standards and the assessments. We’re taking this issue seriously, and we’re putting in place what’s needed to help our students meet these higher standards. We’re going to do whatever it takes to support students reaching the requirement.” Districts in this category represent the best kind of no-excuses, get-it-done attitude and commitment that reflects what makes Ohio great. It reflects an understanding that our students are certainly up to the task, and our teachers, schools and administrators are up to the challenge too. Some of these districts make the case that Ohio may need a longer transition to meet the standard. The need for a little more time might be something worth exploring.

At the other end of the spectrum are districts that say, “The sky is falling! 40% of our students won’t graduate. We’ll have a lot more students without diplomas – and you can’t even get a Walmart job without a diploma.” They’ll go on to tell you that the tests are too hard, and they simply don’t know what to do to help students reach these higher levels. They might even suggest that students simply can’t reach this higher bar. Not everybody needs Algebra, right? Who really uses Geometry, or Biology?

This perspective misses the whole point. It places more importance on the symbolism of the diploma rather than the learning it should stand for. That view adopts the worst kind of defeatist attitude that undervalues the capability of our students, and, frankly undervalues the capabilities of the teachers and professionals that every day commit themselves to providing the best educational opportunity possible. It closes doors for students at a time when we should be making every possible future pursuit a viable one.

Perhaps what is most encouraging is that Ohio’s been in this kind of situation before. When the Ohio Graduation Tests were first implemented, we had some schools and districts sound the alarm that many students wouldn’t graduate. But we got it done – because educators, state government, communities, and partners all worked together to identify the strategies and actions that needed to be taken to get there.

What happens if we decide it’s just too hard?  Businesses will continue to struggle to find workers with the knowledge and skills to do the increasingly complex work that represents the new normal. They’ll go elsewhere to places that can meet their workforce needs. Colleges will continue to enroll students who can make it through the front gate, but don’t have what it takes to cross the finish line. The patterns we see today of high levels of students dropping out of college with high debt and no hope of having the means to repay will continue.

Our students deserve better. Yes, it will be hard work. Yes, it will push all of us outside our comfort zones. We know that the conditions aren’t always ideal for change to occur. We’ll find strength in working together and supporting each other, and knowing that the work we do will create hope – hope for our students, hope for our communities, and hope for the future of our state. Let’s commit ourselves once again – educators, state government, communities, and partners of all varieties – to do what we know can be done. Our children and future generations will thank us.

Tom Gunlock is a Centerville businessman who served six years on the State Board of Education of Ohio, including two as president. He left the panel earlier this year.

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