Business Coalition Hesitant about 'Culminating Experience' in Graduation Framework

Business groups are skeptical of a key element in the State Board of Education's proposed graduation overhaul and want a new system in place faster.

The board's Graduation Requirements and High School Redesign Task Force met Monday night to review the graduation proposal ahead of next week's board meeting. The board is scheduled to vote on it then to meet an April 1 deadline to send more details about its plan to lawmakers.

The proposal, first endorsed by the board late last year, would supplement existing graduation pathways with a new option through which students would demonstrate their knowledge in five areas: English; math; well-rounded content; technology; and leadership, reasoning and social-emotional learning. Students could meet the requirement in a given area through the usual state tests, or by other means such as taking a relevant College Credit Plus course or completing a demonstration project, for example.

The proposal also includes a "culminating student experience," in which students would give some sort of presentation that demonstrates their evidence of knowledge and skills and competency in math, writing and research. It could take the form of a research project, art portfolio, community service project or career-technical education program, among other options.

Lawmakers enacted a transitional graduation plan for the classes of 2019 and 2020 in 132-HB491 (Edwards), extending and revising a plan put in place for the class of 2018. The law required the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to provide more details on a long-term plan by April 1, and to consult with business leaders in the process.

Superintendent Paolo DeMaria told the task force he held meeting on the topic with business organizations including Ohio Business Roundtable, National Federation of Independent Business, Ohio Chamber of Commerce, Ohio Manufacturers' Association, Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, Ohio Farm Bureau, Ohio Restaurant Association and Ohio Excels.

That latter group is a new coalition, formed last year and formally launching next week, for business interests to advocate on preK-through-higher education issues. Its board is chaired by Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joe Roman and includes representatives of L Brands, the Columbus Partnership, Cincinnati Business Committee, Farmer Family Foundation, RPM International, Lovett and Ruth Peters Foundation, Ohio Business Roundtable and the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

DeMaria said general sentiments from the business community in reaction to the proposal included a desire to ensure rigor when using non-standardized learning demonstrations; a need to parameters for minimum mathematics and English requirements; a desire to put the long-term proposal into action starting with the class of 2021; the need to collect enough data to assess the new system; and words of caution about how the complexity of the proposal would affect successful implementation.

DeMaria noted the accelerated implementation preferred by business groups. In contrast, an advisory group DeMaria convened to help develop the proposal urged implementation with the class of 2023, allowing the new rules to apply to a class of incoming freshmen. The State Board of Education recommended implementation in 2022.

Ohio Excels President Lisa Gray, a member of the task force, said the organization is skeptical of the culminating experience element, and wants to ensure any new system has adequate early warning mechanisms to identify struggling students earlier and intervene to assist them.

Gray said Ohio Excels worries the subjective nature of the culminating experience will create an avenue to give diplomas to struggling students who aren't prepared.

"Is the culminating student experience going to become the de facto measure for kids who have not acquired the knowledge and skills that we all believe are needed to be successful … Are we disadvantaging our disadvantaged kids one more time?" Gray said.

She said the organization recognizes the educational value of a culminating experience. "We think it's great education, we just don't think that it meets our principles for something that is for graduation requirements," Gray said.

Regarding early identification of struggling students, Gray said now – at the outset of a new state budget cycle -- is a good time to identify and ask for the resources needed to intervene with those students.

Ohio Excels has its own proposal under development, and it includes alternatives to standardized testing, Gray said. She declined to share details because the organization's board hasn't formally endorsed anything yet.

DeMaria noted the department is proposing quality assurance methods to address concerns about subjectivity and consistency, including training of educators who would be evaluating or scoring culminating experience presentations, and data quality review efforts.

Sarah Wilson, a program administrator ODE focused on the graduation proposal, said guidance the department is developing for capstone projects and work requirements for the classes of 2019 and 2020, per HB491, can serve as a stepping stone to the policies ODE will develop to support the culminating experience.

Other task force members pushed back on Gray's concerns about the culminating experience.

"The culminating experience is important because that's the catalyst that's going to redefine high school, that's going to bring experiences back that now are missing," said Shelly Vaughn, superintendent of the Mercer County ESC. "If we don't place value on those things, they won't happen in some schools, so it goes back to equity issues."

"What's measured gets done," added William Hampton, superintendent of Marietta City Schools.

Board members Antoinette Miranda and Meryl Johnson disagreed with the notion the culminating experience could become a path of least resistance for unprepared students. Miranda said districts with high numbers of struggling students would likely look at the amount of work involved in implementing the culminating experiences and likely decide to put more effort into improving outcomes on other graduation pathways, as that would be simpler.

"It's a lot of work, and it's hard to fake it, it really is. I think what's happening here is you're not realizing how much work this kind of stuff takes, and you put in measures all through experience, you don't just say, 'OK, here's the final project, we're going to measure it,'" Johnson said.

Johnson said the business community could help with the interventions for at-risk students by providing more mentors. "You keep them on track by giving them a mentor," Johnson said.

Sen. Peggy Lehner (R-Kettering), chair of the Senate Education Committee, called in Monday night to listen to the meeting. She said Tuesday she's discussed the concept of the culminating experience with Gray for months.

"What I hope we can do is define [and] put in place some aspects to that culminating experience that satisfy their concern that it's rigorous enough. I think we can get there," she said.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on March 5, 2019.  Copyright 2019 Hannah News Service, Inc.