In case you missed it during the hustle and bustle of the holidays, Ohio recently announced how students can earn a new endorsement on their high school diplomas. It’s known as the OhioMeansJobs-Readiness Seal, and it’s intended to communicate to businesses that a student possesses the professional skills needed for employment.
To earn the seal, students must be deemed proficient in fifteen professional skills, which include punctuality, teamwork and collaboration, and critical thinking and problem solving. Proficiency is determined by three mentors, who must complete and sign the validation form. Students choose their own mentors, but they must include adults from at least two of three state-prescribed areas: school, work, and community. Examples include teachers, coaches, work supervisors, or faith-based leaders.
The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) has a ton of information about the seal online, including this informational guide for teachers, students, and families. It’s in this document that ODE explains the rationale behind it: “Ohio businesses are seeking talented workers who have solid academic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics, as well as the professional skills required for success in the workplace.”
They are certainly correct about the importance of professional skills—often referred to as “soft skills.” These are valuable traits in the world of work, and undoubtedly why the General Assembly put the readiness seal into state law in the first place.
There is, of course, a debate to be had about the best way to gauge soft skills attainment. Plenty of stakeholders have legitimate concerns in this regard, including whether having student-chosen mentors sign off on mastery makes the process too open to gaming. But at least the state is trying to figure out a way to measure various behaviors and traits besides those easily evaluated by standardized tests.
Unfortunately, there’s a serious problem overshadowing all of this—not with the seal itself, but with the diplomas to which the seals will be affixed. By ODE’s own admission, businesses aren’t just looking for students with soft skills. They’re also looking for students with “solid academic skills such as reading, writing and mathematics.” Colleges and universities undoubtedly want the same. And although the work-ready endorsement is meant to indicate that a student possesses important soft skills, it’s the diploma that indicates the mastery of academic or “hard” skills.
In Ohio, however, that’s no longer the case—at least not for this year’s graduating class. Last spring, the state legislature approved additional graduation options for the class of 2018. The new pathways permit students to earn diplomas without passing end of course (EOC) exams, attaining college-ready targets on the SAT or ACT, or meeting career and technical requirements. Instead, students will only need to meet two of nine alternative conditions, a list that includes non-academic achievements such as 93 percent attendance or 120 hours of work/community service during their senior year. Earning the readiness seal is also one of these nine options. In short, some graduates in the class of 2018 will soon go out into the real world with seals that indicate their soft skills proficiency and a diploma that indicates many accomplishments—like school attendance or volunteer hours—but certainly not academic mastery. Functionally illiterate, but cooperative, teenagers will now earn high school diplomas. Are we sure that’s a good idea?
Across the country, graduation rates are rising while the value of a diploma continues to plummet. Some are starting to wonder if the high school diploma has lost its academic meaning altogether. In Ohio’s case, many of the recent diploma changes are the result of understandable concerns—policymakers and administrators don’t want to withhold diplomas based solely on test scores. But what often gets overlooked in the debate is why test scores matter in the first place: Without them, the state has no way to validate that students have mastered the academic content needed to succeed in the real world. Of course soft skills matter—but they are meaningless if they aren’t bolstered by hard, academic skills too.
 The Ohio Department of Education defines a proficient student as one who “has a deep understanding, can achieve a high standard routinely, takes responsibility for own work, deals with complex situations, makes decisions with confidence, and sees, overall, how individual actions influence outcomes.”