Is a high-school diploma worth the paper it's written on?

Next week the state will release its school-district report cards-although districts are leaking their data already (see here), detailing how well Ohio's public schools are meeting academic standards, including how many high-school students passed the Ohio Graduation Test (OGT) last year. Unfortunately for college-bound students, passing the OGT and getting a high-school diploma are not indicators of college readiness. In fact, more and more evidence shows that many of our state's high-school graduates are neither college-ready nor work-ready. Perhaps we should print those diplomas on sheepskin after all-at least grads could use them as hand warmers while they wait in the unemployment line.

In its annual college-readiness report released last week, testing giant ACT said that only 26 percent of the members of the Ohio graduating class of 2008 who took the ACT scored well enough to be considered ready for college-level coursework (see here). The ACT national readiness average is 22 percent, although this is hardly cause for Buckeye breast beating. Consider the ACT report from the other end-the bitter end. An incredible 74 percent of Ohio high-school graduates taking the ACT are not ready for college. And there's more. The Ohio Board of Regents has found that far too many high-school graduates need remedial coursework when they do arrive at college. According to the Regents, in autumn 2006-the last year for which data are available-39 percent of Ohio students entering an Ohio public college needed a remedial math or English course (see here).

If they're not ready for college, it's little wonder that students taking remedial courses are far less likely than their better-prepared peers to graduate. For students entering Ohio colleges as freshmen in 1998, the six-year bachelor's degree completion rate was 15 percent for remedial students vs. 47 percent for non-remedial students (see here).

Lack-of-readiness is pervasive and does not just lie with urban districts or poor communities. From 2002 to 2006, for Ohio graduates attending an Ohio public college, there were only five (of 614) school districts in which 15 percent or fewer graduates needed remedial work, according to the Regents' data.

Teachers, administrators, and lawmakers ought to be embarrassed and taxpayers ought to be asking what's going on. In the past decade, Ohio has instituted academic standards in English language arts, math, science, social studies, technology, and fine arts. The state administers 18 annual tests in grades three through eight in addition to the OGT. This year, roughly 40 percent of the state's budget was spent on K-12 education. We spend almost $17 billion annually on public education, and we've seen per-pupil expenditures, using inflation-adjusted dollars, rise 25 percent in 10 years (from $7,500 to about $10,000) (see here). So why aren't Ohio's students leaving high school ready for college?

Perhaps it's an unintended consequence of the state's accountability system. Ohio's schools may have beefed up instruction and expectations in tested grades and subjects at the expense of fully preparing students for life after high school. After all, if we only require our schools to get youngsters to a 10th-grade level of proficiency by graduation, it's hard to fault them when that's exactly what they do.

It's also possible that remediation rates are skewed because more students are going to college than probably ought to. A college degree is important, but college isn't for everyone. Ohio's aim to enroll 230,000 more college students by 2017 (see here) may not only be overly ambitious but little more than a pipe-dream based on current trends.

To better equip our students for college, and frankly college readiness and work readiness are the same basic standard, requires a major shift in attitude. All students need to graduate from high school college-ready, whether or not they opt to go on to higher education. Toward that end, Ohio has already taken one big step in the right direction. Starting with the graduating class of 2014-this year's seventh graders-students will be required to complete the Ohio Core Curriculum that includes, among other things: four units of English; four units of math, including Algebra II; three units of lab-based science, including biology and an advanced course like physics or chemistry; and three units of social studies. Admission to the main campus of most state public universities will hinge on completing this coursework. Those students who don't will have to complete classes at a community college or a branch campus before they can attend a main campus.

There are other ideas worth considering. Make the OGT more rigorous and reflect what a 12th grader, not a 10th grader, needs to know. Or maybe Ohio should take seriously the 2007 McKinsey/Achieve report that recommended supplanting the Ohio Graduation Test with end-of-course exams in the Ohio Core subjects (see here). Ohio is taking tentative steps in this direction as one of 14 states administering a common Algebra II end-of-course exam beginning this year. Unfortunately, participation by schools is optional (see here). Maybe, like in Kentucky, the state should administer the ACT to all high school students to gauge college readiness. Or the state could use money as a carrot and base a district's funding, in part, on the college-remediation rates or ACT/SAT scores of its graduates.

What would have the greatest impact, though, is ensuring high-quality, effective teaching in every Ohio classroom. This, of course, is a ubiquitous solution that no one has quite figured out, but we can't let that be an excuse to stop trying.

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