Lawmakers promise fix for tens of thousands of high school seniors at risk of not graduating


By Doug Livingston - Akron Beacon Journal (TNS)



AKRON — Summer Cantor has marched in the band since eighth grade and worked since 10th grade.

As a junior, she enrolled in marketing. She was told the two-year course, which she’s finishing this school year, would land her a diploma plus an industry credential that employers prefer on job resumes.

Her boss should be a good reference. He said she shows up with a positive attitude and “always 15 minutes early.” Her teachers and counselor said she gets good grades and rarely misses school. Most mornings, she’s at Springfield High School by 6:45 a.m. to open the marketing store. She heads home after fifth period, does her homework then works as a grocery store cashier until 10 most nights.

“I don’t really do teenage things,” said the 17-year-old model student — who may not graduate under Ohio law.

The Ohio Department of Education doesn’t credit Summer’s marketing class toward her graduation. Instead, she must collect 18 points on five new state-mandated tests, which 51,758 high school seniors, or 38 percent, have yet to pass.

Three points shy, Summer is retaking four of the tests, just to be safe. They cover material she learned as a freshman and sophomore.

If she fails, Ohio’s publicly funded education system will offer her another year in high school. Employers might not hire her. She’d lose her spot in marching band. “And if I don’t get a diploma, I can’t join the Navy, which is something I’ve been planning for my future,” she said.

Summer’s complaint is one in a hundred received by Rep. Tavia Galonski of Akron from educators, parents and students across the state who feel the second year of Ohio’s new graduation standards is failing.

Now, after years of warnings and in the middle of a school year, lawmakers are promising legislation in the coming weeks to let tens of thousands of seniors graduate this spring.

Arrested accountability

Ohio’s graduation crisis is the byproduct of a 30-year march toward increased testing and stiffer standards.

The first uniform graduation requirement was legislated in 1987, calling for the class of 1994 and beyond to demonstrate a ninth-grade level of proficiency in math, reading, writing and citizenship.

With researchers and industry interests decrying America’s slip in international education rankings, Ohio lawmakers enacted Ohio Graduation Tests in 2004. But some in Columbus continued to equate diplomas to participation awards, so new end-of-course exams were mandated last school year.

The tests proved difficult and potentially embarrassing as Ohio’s graduation rate was set to tank. Districts with high student poverty braced as half of their students struggled to pass the new tests. Suburban superintendents also projected falling graduation rates.

Consequently, lawmakers amended Gov. John Kasich’s last state budget to allow schools to issue diplomas to students in the class of 2018 who, after failing test retakes, could prove their preparedness with a 93 percent attendance rate and A or B average in their senior classes, 120 hours of community service, 450 hours on the job or a capstone project, among other options.

These “alternative pathways” complemented the state’s existing three graduation requirements: score remediation-free on college entrance exams; pass the new end-of-course exams; or receive a state-accredited industry credential and a minimum score on WorkKeys, a workforce assessment developed by the makers of the ACT.

Thanks to the alternative pathways, some districts — including Akron — touted higher graduation rates, which irked state lawmakers trying to ramp up accountability. But the alternative pathways expired this school year, leaving 84,829 seniors like Summer wondering if they’ll get a diploma since they have yet to pass the new state exams. The exams can be taken three times. And some students are on state-approved workforce pathways.

But not even the Ohio Department of Education, which is awaiting a final tally next month, knows how many students used the alternative pathways last year, or how many may need them again in the coming months.

State solution

Local school districts and their advocates in Columbus are mounting a social media campaign to raise public awareness to support an extension of the alternative pathways through 2020, or even 2021.

State Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the extension will mirror last year’s temporary fix. Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, who heads the state Senate Education Committee, said: “The Senate is very much in play” on an extension through 2020.

The lawmakers want Kasich to sign the extension in December. His successor, Gov.-elect Mike DeWine, would be the one to sign a permanent fix. The long-term solution is a work in progress. Lehner, who criticized herself and fellow lawmakers for waiting so long to craft a solution for this year, said it’s likely that the free pass for good attendance, which few school districts used last year, would not make it into the final fix.

Galonski introduced House Bill 630 in May. The stand-alone bill would extend the alternative pathways through 2020. She penned a letter to House Speaker Ryan Smith in October, urging Republican leadership to act. After getting no response amid the midterm election, she published the letter last week.

The state school board has urged lawmakers to act since January. The board formed a committee in 2016, which met again last week, to monitor and recommend guidelines for graduation. And despite leading on the issue with fellow Democrat Theresa Fedor of Toledo, Galonski’s legislation will likely die. Rather, Republicans are hinting at adding the extension to an education bill they’ve already passed through the House.

Local fix

The Ohio Department of Education is reporting that charter schools, particularly those designed to help high-school dropouts, have the highest percent of students failing the new graduation tests. Meanwhile, educators in traditional high schools are advancing as if legislators won’t act.

In Stark County, 13 seniors at Lake and 99 in Jackson have yet to ace a college entrance exam or pass the new graduation tests. All are getting extra help. None is currently on the workforce path to graduation, school administrators report.

In Summit County, by sheer size and percent, Akron Public Schools sensed troubled early and has since focused on the 768 seniors (55 percent of the class of 2019) who lack credits or passing test scores.

Intervention assistance groups in each of the city’s high schools have charted how close students are to the coveted 18 points on the state’s five end-of-course exams. For those on the goal line, remediation is offered in one or two subjects. Students with greater deficits were divided by area of interest this month. Those learning to weld, for example, are now helped toward an industry credential in that field.

When all else fails, counselors in Akron are deploying online curriculum purchased this fall to certify students with the universal skill of customer service. But, like others electing the workforce development road to graduation, they’ll still need a minimum score, which increases next year, on Ohio’s workforce test. The exam covers math, information graphics and working with documents.

Canton faces a similar uphill climb with 53 percent of its seniors needing to retake the state tests in December.

Districts across Ohio are custom-fitting students to similar solutions. Barring action from lawmakers, it’s a last-ditch effort to get tens of thousands a piece of paper often required by employers and community college, trade schools and universities.

Waterloo administrators are steering six seniors — including a couple in their second year — to online practice tests and in-school credit recovery courses. The district’s other 78 seniors are on track to pass the tests.

Superintendent Bob Dunn in nearby Southeast School District said 37 students, or 31 percent of his seniors, have not yet passed the state or college-entrance exams. “Most if not all of those 37 seniors will be in position to graduate if the state legislature approves bringing back the alternative pathways from last year,” Dunn said.

The rural district is investigating industry credentials.

Kent, which has teamed up for years with five other school districts in Portage and Summit counties to offer vocational programs, expects the workforce option to suffice for the 11 students out of 238 seniors who might need a plan B.

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By Doug Livingston

Akron Beacon Journal (TNS)

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