At its November meeting, the State Board of Education reopened the debate over Ohio’s graduation standards. To facilitate this discussion, the Ohio Department of Education unveiled a concept paper that set forth various options. Among them was a route to graduation that would permit students to receive diplomas under alternative criteria such as satisfactory GPAs, attendance rates, capstone projects, internship or work hours, and several other possibilities. Dubbed the “alternative knowledge demonstration pathway,” this proposal would extend such options to the class of 2019 and beyond.

This may sound familiar. Rewind to earlier this year and recall that state policymakers approved alternatives such as these in lieu of meeting achievement targets on end of course exams (EOCs) or the ACT/SAT, or earning industry-recognized credentials and demonstrating workforce readiness[1]—the three “original” pathways under Ohio’s updated graduation standards. Such alternatives were extended only to the class of 2018, the first cohort expected to meet the new requirements.

As state board members ponder once again the direction to take on graduation requirements for succeeding classes, they should keep the following points in mind.

  1. Remember the board’s own vision statement declaring the aim that “all Ohio students will graduate well prepared for success.”

    The original three graduation pathways—the two exam-based options and the industry credentials pathway—adhered to this vision by challenging students to demonstrate readiness in clear ways. Specifically, the EOC and ACT/SAT achievement targets are set in ways that signal to institutions of higher education that graduates are ready to embark on advanced coursework or technical certification programs. Meanwhile, the credentialing pathway (more on this below) is designed so that students seeking to enter the workforce will be primed to advance quickly in their careers.

    The proposed alternative options unfortunately fail to impart much confidence that students following those paths will be ready for life after high school. Does completion of a single capstone project—of who knows what quality—mean young people are ready for the rigors of post-secondary education? Or the armed services? Or a technical career in advanced manufacturing or healthcare? Maybe or maybe not. More likely, however, is that these alternatives will be used as last-ditch efforts to shuffle students out of the K-12 system and into adulthood—not exactly following the board’s vision of readiness for all students. In fact, if the board pursues yet again the “alternative knowledge” approach, it should revise its vision statement to read more honestly:

    The State Board of Education’s vision is for all Ohio students to graduate from the PK-12 education system with the knowledge, skills and behaviors necessary to successfully continue their education and/or be workforce ready and successfully participate in the global economy as productive citizens. Ultimately, all students will graduate well prepared for success.

  2. The alternatives options are open to gaming and manipulation.

    Schools may be tempted to game the options in ways that don’t benefit students. This could take various forms, including artificially inflating—even retroactively changing—course grades to ensure that students meet the GPA threshold; approving a capstone project of dubious quality (Does standing on your head count? Making 100 sandwiches for the homeless?); or fudging data on school attendance or the number of hours in an internship/work experience. Ideally, state policies would incentivize schools to do right by all of their students—encouraging them to help youngsters reach higher achievement levels and/or gain competencies necessary for employment. Instead, the alternatives will pressure educators to excuse and then promote students who have not yet met academic or career-ready standards—a shameful practice that one teacher recently called unethical.

  3. The exam-based pathways require students to demonstrate knowledge and skills in core academic subjects.

    Despite all the grumbling over state exams, it must be emphasized that Ohio’s high school EOCs assess students’ knowledge and skills in key content areas—math, English, science, and U.S. history and government. It should be non-negotiable that Ohio students exit high school able to read, write, and do math, while also possessing a basic knowledge of science and the history of this nation and its government. Yet the alternative graduation options suggest that competency in these subjects is replaceable by things like capstone projects or internships and part-time jobs. Unfortunately, completing work experience is no substitute for literacy; rather it should be seen as a complement that builds on pupils’ core academic abilities.
  4. Don’t discount the industry credentials pathway.

    The board may justify alternative graduation standards on the grounds that some students struggle to meet the exam-based pathways (EOCs or ACT/SAT). That’s a reasonable concern. But the solution isn’t to create eleventh-hour graduation workarounds. Policymakers would serve students better by emphasizing the rigorous credentialing pathway as a legitimate way to earn a high school diploma and ready themselves for the workforce and/or higher education. Pupils pursuing this pathway also stand to benefit: As a Fordham study reveals, CTE students are more likely to graduate high school and generate higher wages as young adults when compared to their closely matched peers. 

    How does this pathway work? It asks young people to earn a passing score on the WorkKeys assessment and to attain twelve points in the industry-credentials system. Designed by ACT, WorkKeys gauges students’ workplace readiness in math and literacy; under the credentials requirements, students earn certifications in various competencies (e.g., six sigma or safety practices in oil and gas extraction). Importantly, students must accumulate certificates in a particular career field such as manufacturing, healthcare, or agriculture to meet this requirement. This encourages CTE students to gain expertise in a chosen career field instead of aimlessly seeking certificates across various fields.

    State leaders should also be encouraging educators to have frank conversations—as early as ninth or tenth grade—with students and parents about post-secondary goals and how they can meet them. Struggling students may indeed resolve to pursue EOC or ACT/SAT pathways, or perhaps they’ll see credentials as a more viable option (or pursue both concurrently). To be certain, this shouldn’t lead to “tracking” of young people into the substandard vocational programs or suggest that pursuing credentials closes doors to higher education. To address concerns such as these, the board should keep a close eye on the rigor of the industry-recognized credentials system (which they are charged with overseeing). State leaders and educators can also communicate to students and parents that choosing the credentialing route does not rule out college matriculation—something most young people aspire toward—either directly after high school or later in life. 

* * *

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education undermined rigorous graduation standards by pushing for questionable alternatives that lawmakers later ratified. In the coming months, that same board (and the legislators who may again follow its lead) has a chance to redeem itself by rebuffing proposals to enact low-level alternatives for future graduating classes on a more permanent basis. The board’s stated vision is to ensure students leave ready for success after high school, whether college or career; this time around, it shouldn’t flinch.

[1] This is sometimes seen as the career and technical education (CTE) pathway, but in its concept paper, ODE refers to it as the “credential based” pathway, so I use credentialing terminology instead of CTE to describe this option.

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…

View Full Bio