Columbus Dispatch Editorial: Needed: graduation requirements that are flexible but meaningful

If it feels like Ohio has been fumbling around trying to come up with lasting graduation requirements for an awfully long time, it’s because that is in fact the case.

We’re hopeful that a proposal before lawmakers now can be the breakthrough long sought.

At the moment, Ohio schools are in a three-year limbo of sorts, operating through next school year on temporary requirements put in place by the legislature when it became clear that the ones that were supposed to take effect for the class of 2018 were going to leave too many seniors without diplomas.

Lawmakers have before them two competing proposals for yet another new set of requirements, and some version is expected to end up in the biennial budget once the House and Senate reconcile their respective spending plans at the end of this month.

The goal and challenge, as always, is to create requirements meaningful enough that no one graduates from high school unprepared for work or further study, without setting a bar that unreasonably prevents too many from graduating.

It isn’t just a matter of a higher or lower bar, because there isn’t a single bar. Most experts recognize that different students can demonstrate their readiness in different ways.

One plan is being put forward by the State Board of Education. The other was developed by a trio of education and business groups. Both describe a number of areas in which students must satisfy certain requirements. Both provide multiple ways for each area to be completed.

A key difference between the two is that the state board’s plan would allow some of the areas to be satisfied with what it calls a “culminating student experience” — a type of independent project often called a capstone.

Because lawmakers reportedly are favoring the plan developed by the consortium (Ohio Excels, a business-focused group; the Alliance for High Quality Education, a group of 75 suburban school districts; and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank), the state board passed a resolution Wednesday offering to back the consortium’s plan if it were changed to allow a capstone project to satisfy its competency requirement.

The consortium is adamant that capstone projects aren’t consistent or rigorous enough to carry so much weight.

To meet its plan’s competency requirement, students would have to either earn a certain score on the state’s Algebra I and English II end-of-course tests or meet one of several other alternatives involving College Credit Plus courses, career skills or military enlistment.

We agree that a capstone project allows too much variance to be a reliable and meaningful way to judge a student’s readiness for career or college. Many school districts already require capstone projects, and they can be a valuable add-on to a high-school senior’s portfolio. But any project significant enough to completely demonstrate a student’s readiness for career or college likely would require an unrealistic amount of effort for students to devise on their own and for schools to fairly evaluate.

Both plans deserve praise for better recognizing the value of preparing for careers via vocational education and industry credentials. The consortium’s plan does a better job of ensuring that every diploma is meaningful, and we hope to see it reflected in the final state budget bill.

Read full editorial here.

rob nichols