As a form of credentialing, high school diplomas are supposed to signal whether a young person possesses a certain set of knowledge and skills. When meaningful, the diploma mutually benefits individuals who have obtained one—it helps them stand out from the crowd—and colleges or employers that must select from a pool of many candidates.

In recent years, however, Ohio’s high school diploma has been diluted to the point where its value has been rightly questioned. One of the central problems has been the state’s embarrassingly easy exit exams, the Ohio Graduation Tests (OGT). To rectify this situation, Ohio is phasing in new high school graduation requirements starting with the class of 2018. Under these new requirements, students must pass a series of seven end-of-course assessments in order to graduate high school, or meet alternative requirements such as attaining a remediation-free ACT score or earning an industry credential.

The end-of-course exams have proven tougher for students to pass than the OGT, leading to concerns that too many young people will soon be stranded without a diploma. One local superintendent called the situation an “apocalypse,” predicting that more than 30 percent of high school students in his district would fall short of the new standards. He wasn’t alone, as an estimated 200 superintendents and school board members recently voiced their concerns at a Statehouse rally. An analysis by the Ohio Department of Education suggests that statewide, almost one in three pupils from the class of 2018 aren’t on a sure track towards a diploma.

This has put the state in a bind. On the one hand, in an era of heightened standards, no one wants to backtrack and hand out meaningless credentials. On the other hand, policymakers are right to worry about leaving thousands of pupils without a diploma. In today’s economy, such students are likely to struggle to find employment and are unable to join the military.

Can Ohio move forward on high standards—even re-inflating the value of the diploma—without leaving young people behind? Yes, but it will take some rethinking about how the state awards its high school credentials.

The most reasonable alternative, also suggested by several prominent education analysts (including our own Checker Finn), is for Ohio to pursue a multi-tiered approach to awarding diplomas. This would help Ohio maintain high achievement standards in the face of pressure to lower them while also building an incentive structure that could push students to achieve at higher levels. Ohio already has an honors diploma for students who go above and beyond in their coursework—a good start. Yet the honors diploma does not rely on state assessment results nor is it widely recognized as a measure of the accomplishments of Ohio’s highest achievers.

Here’s how a beefed-up, tiered system of awarding diplomas could work. At the base level, Ohio could create a standard-issue diploma signifying that pupils have persevered through thirteen years of school—a certificate of completion more or less. These students would have met their core coursework requirements yet fallen short of the stringent benchmarks of Ohio’s end-of-course exams. If we’re being frank, this is where Ohio has been with tying diplomas to the OGTs over the past decade or so (and perhaps also with its predecessor exam, the Ninth Grade Proficiency Test). One step up would be a college- and career-ready diploma that indicates students have demonstrated readiness, either by meeting rigorous academic targets on state exams or completing a demanding industry certification. This lines up more closely to Ohio’s new graduation requirements. Finally, the state could award a third diploma—a certificate of exceptional accomplishment—that the most academically able students receive. This diploma’s benchmarks could be geared to the expectations of the state’s most selective colleges and universities and would be a cause of celebration for students, parents, schools, and communities. The state could also tie the diploma to a merit-based college scholarship program.

A tiered approach would have several benefits. First, the state could maintain high expectations for all graduates, yet simply award various diplomas depending on whether pupils fell short, reached, or considerably exceeded the end-of-course exam standards. Second, by issuing at least a basic-level diploma, the state could avoid the repercussions of potentially denying one in three students a diploma. Third, by awarding a diploma with distinction, the state may incentivize some pupils to accumulate more “human capital.” For instance, consider a junior who has already secured a college- and career-ready diploma. She may not feel motivated in her senior year—a case of “senioritis.” But with an honors diploma in play, and clear benefits for earning one, there is more reason to work hard. Fourth, the state could allow pupils meeting the criteria for the college- and career-ready diploma as juniors (or earlier) to graduate, and then offer them the funds saved by foregoing their senior year to defray the cost of college. Fifth, a tiered diploma would help young people as they enter the workforce. For college students, it could help them in the competition for internships; likewise, a more meaningful diploma should aid those seeking full-time employment directly after high school.

Ohio’s old and outgoing high school diplomas didn’t signal much of anything to anyone. The requirements were ridiculously easy and practically everyone got a diploma. This diminished its value. Now the state is ratcheting up its graduation requirements: As State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria told the Columbus Dispatch, “This is all about giving greater meaning to a high school diploma.” State leaders should not back down on rigorous graduation standards simply to accommodate more diplomas. But neither should they be hard-headed. The best way forward for Ohio is to remake the diploma and reject the notion that there is only one way forward. 

Policy Priority:

Aaron Churchill is the Ohio research director for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he has worked since 2012. In this role, Aaron oversees a portfolio of research projects aimed at strengthening education policy in Ohio. He also writes regularly on Fordham’s blog, the Ohio Gadfly Daily, and contributes analytic support for…

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