Paolo DeMaria discusses recommendations of the state's graduation workgroup.

State schools chief, education group argue on Twitter over state tests and graduation rules

As debates over Ohio’s current and future graduation standards continue, state school superintendent Paolo DeMaria had a pointed Twitter exchange this weekend with the Fordham Institute’s Ohio branch.

Fordham, an education policy institute, has been one of the most consistent voices calling for Ohio to set higher standards for student graduation, including the use of graduation tests to measure proficiency.

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In an article posted Sept. 10, Fordham’s Chad Aldis and Jessica Poiner focused on a DeMaria quote (from an article by this news organization) saying too many educators underestimate kids and fail to realize they can meet higher expectations. They said given DeMaria’s quote, and given Ohio’s struggles to increase the number of college/career ready students, the state needs to keep its tougher high school tests.

DeMaria responded Sunday, in sharper fashion than normal, calling some of Fordham’s ideas “absurd.”

“I’m puzzled why you/Fordham cling to the absurd idea that tests are the ONLY way a student can show what they know and can do,” DeMaria tweeted. “Even colleges are moving away from tests. Why wouldn’t an org with Fordham’s reputation engage in identifying high quality alternatives? So sad.”

That triggered a variety of responses from educators, some calling for the end of state tests altogether, while others just asked for any Class of 2019 graduation alternatives to be decided as soon as possible.

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Aldis, Fordham’s director of Ohio policy, fired back at DeMaria.

“This debate is occurring because not enough students are demonstrating the reading and math competency levels put forth by the Board,” he said. “So, we’ve decided to find equivalent paths that are going to leave many low-income students with a diploma but few academic skills. That’s sad.”

Michael Petrelli, Fordham’s national president, chimed in as well, saying Fordham is open to supporting graduation pathways such as earning industry credentials, as long as they are “valid and reliable.” Petrilli said the high school graduation bar doesn’t need to be as high as “college and career readiness,” but he argued it has to be more than a certificate of attendance to students without basic literacy and numeracy skills.

Ohio graduation summary

To earn a diploma, current high school seniors must pass at least 20 course credits and choose one of three test-based pathways — 18 of 35 possible points on the state’s seven end-of-course exams, a remediation-free score on the ACT or SAT, or an approved job credential along with passing the WorkKeys test. There are exemptions for a small number of special education students.

Last year, the state legislature delayed that system, allowing the Class of 2018 to graduate via a mix of 93 percent attendance, a 2.5 GPA, 120 work/service hours, or a “capstone” project, rather than a test. Legislators have thus far declined to extend those options to the Class of 2019.

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The state school board could, without legislative input, change how many points students need on state tests to graduate (lowering the bar from 18 to 15 or some other number). But many board members are hesitant to pursue that option.

Meanwhile, a graduation work group convened by DeMaria will meet for the final time Wednesday, and is expected to issue recommendations for new graduation standards for the Class of 2021 and beyond. DeMaria previewed the draft recommendations for the state school board this week.

They suggest that starting two years from now, students would have to demonstrate “what they know and can do” in five areas – English, math, other subjects, technology and the more vague leadership/reasoning/ social-emotional development. But state tests would be only one way to get there.

The state legislature would have to approve those recommendations for them to become law.

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