CINCINNATI -- The road to a high school diploma in Ohio used to have only one path. Pass the Ohio Graduation Test, along with your required coursework, and you're done.
But starting with incoming juniors -- the class of 2018 -- the state test is history, and students can choose to graduate one of three ways.
In addition to passing required courses, students will earn a diploma by:
• Taking the ACT or SAT and earning certain minimum scores.
• Scoring 18 points out of a possible 35 points on seven state tests that are given at the end of specific math, English, science, government and history courses.
• Earning credentials toward a state-approved career field, nursing or construction and scoring a 13 or higher on the WorkKeys work-readiness test.
Giving students far more flexibility on how to earn a diploma opens up choices for them that preparing for a single state graduation test lacked, and the changes have been well received by Tri-State educators.
"We are supportive of more options to show the diverse ways in which students can prepare for success in college and the job world once they graduate," Cincinnati Public Schools Public Affairs Director Janet Walsh said.
CPS incorporated the graduation options into an online program it calls College and Career Compass, designed to help students and families understand state graduation requirements, track academic progress, and prepare for college, careers or enlistment in the military, Walsh said.
Three Rivers Superintendent Craig Hockenberry said the end-of-course exams and other options represent a more rigorous system that he thinks will lead to high school graduates being college- and career-ready.
"I foresee high schools will see lower scores and ratings these upcoming years as we adjust to new assessments and cut scores are determined," Hockenberry said. "But overall, these are the changes needed to raise academic achievement and ensure we are sending students who are ready on to post-secondary institutions and the workforce."
The change has been in the works since Ohio lawmakers approved the new structure in spring 2014, but it's just being rolled out to give state and local educators time to work out the details.
The Industry Credential and Workforce Readiness program allows students to steer clear of all state and national testing as a graduation requirement with the exception of the WorkKeys work-readiness test.
State officials conferred with Ohio employers to ensure the available credential or certification programs were for fields that are in high demand in the state.
The 13 career fields represent a wide array of choices, but students have to choose to earn credentials in just one field to meet the graduation requirement.
Emily Passias, Ohio Department of Education Career-Technical Education director, said the idea of this option is to give graduates solid qualifications for work right out of high school or a leg up as they pursue college degrees in a given field.
"Those credentials will give them a jumpstart if they want to jump into a career," Passias said. "But the majority go to college or leverage those credentials to get a job and have their employer pay for secondary education."
Students can be well on their way to becoming a paramedic or a police officer, for example, earning credentials like basic and intermediate emergency medical technician skills. They're worth 12 credits each toward the required 12-point total.
Smaller courses like CPR and first aid and Taser and pepper spray training are worth one point each.
"Lots of students who have interest in being doctors or nurses pursue industry-recognized credentials like nurses aid and phlebotomy," Passias said. "It gets them closer to where they want to be and gets them that credential while they're working toward an actual degree."
She said that more than 60 percent of students who have taken career credential courses in the past move on to two- or four-year colleges.
Keeping options open
Students who want to earn a college degree but aren't sure in high school what they want to do with their careers can go through the rigor of taking state exams at the end of seven courses or they can achieve the same result by doing well on the the ACT or SAT.
Ohio will pay for every junior to take either the ACT or the SAT. Each district chooses which test will be administered and paid for locally.
Students must pass the ACT with an 18 or higher in English and a 22 or higher in math and reading.
SAT scores must be 430 or higher in writing; 450 or higher in reading; and 520 or higher in mathematics.
Still too much testing for some
Norwood High School Principal Bradley Winterod said a savvy high school junior could work hard to do well on the ACT or SAT and opt out of taking the seven state end-of-course tests.
In many districts, including Norwood, the state tests do not count as part of a student's grade, so there is no penalty for students who skip taking them. Districts, however, suffer lower grades and lower participation rates when students skip state tests.
"Schools gets dinged for non-participation," Winterod said. "That's the frustrating piece."
Norwood doesn't link state tests to student grades because the state results won't come out until the school year is over, Winterod said.
He wants state and federal educators to abolish all required state testing except one.
"In my perfect world the ACT would be the final measure of everything," Winterod said. Having that test result gives students a tool to get into college immediately or years down the road if they choose to first enter the workforce.
Having taken it in high school alleviates the need for an adult learner to bone up on his math to take the ACT in his 20s, he said.
For now, Norwood and other districts will appeal to students' school spirit to do their best on the state tests so that their schools and districts will do well on the state report cards.
The new system, he said, "Good for the kid, bad for the school. It's an ongoing theme."