One of the talking points in the never-ending debate over what Ohio students should have to achieve to graduate centers on personalization. The Ohio Department of Education even released a statement last fall saying that “schools will have the flexibility to support their students’ passions” under the state board’s recommended graduation requirements. But, tempting as it may be, the goal of personalization shouldn’t be accomplished by undermining the assessment system. That fails the equity test that asserts that all students, no matter their interests or backgrounds, need to exit high school with the competencies necessary for adult success.
Still, within certain confines, allowing high school students to tailor their education to individual needs and interests is a worthy goal. What can be done to allow for more customization? The answer lies not in undoing assessments, but rather in state course requirements. Though they haven’t been subject to much debate, slimming them down would create more opportunities for young people to customize their education in ways that don’t compromise standards.
Current course requirements
To graduate high school, state law requires students to earn at least twenty course credits, a.k.a. “units,” which are defined as 120 hours of instruction—essentially, a year-long course. Among these credits, students must complete four credits in both English and math; three credits in both science and social studies; five electives chosen from a variety of areas; and one-half credit in both health and physical education. Save for various exceptions, statute also prescribes specific courses in most content-areas. For example, within social studies, students must take 0.5 credits of both U.S. history and U.S. government, and starting with the class of 2021, 0.5 credits of world history and civilizations. State law also requires instruction in economics and financial literacy in the other social studies courses, though no “unit” requirement is given for these topics.
That’s a mouthful. So let’s see how these requirements play out in a student schedule. The table below presents a conventional seven-period day, assuming that an eighth period is used for lunch or study hall. For the sake of illustration, this hypothetical student is interested in a technical career and wants to dive deep into courses in the IT field. He also loves playing in the school orchestra and, during his senior year, hears about a terrific work-based learning opportunity with a local employer.
Table 1 shows what his schedule might look like. You’ll notice that there isn’t much room to go beyond the state-required courses, especially given the work-based learning opportunity. He also faces some tough choices. For instance, should he sacrifice a fourth year of Spanish—perhaps working towards fluency—or take another IT course such as computer programming? And what to do about orchestra?
Table 1: An illustration of a student schedule with current state-required courses highlighted
* Indicates a state end-of-course exam associated with the course. † Indicates a course is used to meet the state’s elective requirement.
A scaled back version of course requirements
Now let’s see what this student’s schedule might look like under leaner requirements. Under this framework, the state would only require the following: four credits of English, three credits of math, and two credits each of social studies and science. This would allow for the type of schedule displayed in table 2. By carefully removing a few state-required courses, totaling four credits, the course-taking possibilities open considerably. Our hypothetical student now has room for two additional career-oriented courses—in IT, perhaps, or another field that piques his interest—and he doesn’t have to sacrifice orchestra in his senior year.
Table 2: An illustration of a student schedule with proposed state-required courses highlighted
Thinking about benefits and costs
If lawmakers pared down state-required courses, it would leave more time for high school students to pursue what interests them. This could benefit young people who might be more inspired to learn in courses that have more purpose and relevance to them. More specialized coursework could also solidify students’ math and literacy skills when they’re applied in other settings. It might also help to curb dropout rates. Last, while the example above focuses on a career-technical student, high achievers could also benefit from the enhanced flexibility. For instance, one could imagine an exceptionally gifted writer who gains little from the third state-required science course and would benefit more by loading up on literature and humanities courses. And though it wouldn’t require a statutory change, another possible way to open up the schedules of high achievers is for schools to more strongly encourage them to take required courses while in middle school.
But concerns may also be raised. Students could use these newfound flexibilities in ways that don’t ensure a solid foundation in core academic areas. But that risk is ameliorated so long as Ohio maintains a robust assessment system that holds students accountable for meeting targets on end-of-course exams. In a somewhat similar vein, some analysts have suggested that states match requirements with the coursework expectations of flagship state universities. Shifting to a more bare-bones approach is not likely to guarantee such alignment. But a few things should be noted. First, Ohio’s current requirements don’t match every college’s expectations. For example, Ohio State University seeks two years of foreign language, and no such requirement exists for graduation. Second, while high school graduation standards should indeed be aligned to college and career readiness, they need not match those of top universities that a relatively small proportion of students attend. Third, any change in state minimum course requirements should continue to ensure that any student meeting them can gain admission into a two-year or technical college. Fourth, Ohio should maintain more stringent English and math course requirements—and assessments, too—so that students attending any type of college don’t end up in remediation.
* * *
Every student should exit high school competent in English, math, and citizenship. For those pursuing jobs right after high school, they also need to leave with technical skills that allow them to advance in their careers. Yet how students achieve these skills should be less prescriptive, allowing for more customization and flexibility. The quest for more personalization is commendable. We just need to start looking for those opportunities in the right places.
 State law provides for a competency-based approach to awarding credits, rather than a “seat time” determination.
 The half-credit physical education requirement is oddly defined as 120 hours in state law. Provided local board approval, students can meet this requirement via athletics, marching band, or JROTC.
 Examples of exceptions include an option for career-tech students to forgo Algebra II and take another math course. Based on parental consent, students in the classes of 2014–19 may meet alternative course requirements—though in practice, less than 1 percent of graduates use this option.