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Even in crisis, students must earn their diplomas

A recent Vindicator story, “Seniors get green light to graduate,” reported that Youngstown schools CEO Justin Jennings expects all district seniors to graduate this spring. That comment is both startling and disturbing coming from the leader of a school system that has long struggled to ensure all its students are ready for college and careers.

According to last year’s report card, just 3 percent of Youngstown students achieve college-remediation-free scores on their ACT or SAT exams. Only 1 in 10 has been earning any kind of college degree within six years of exiting high school.

What gives? Given these troubling data and that the district at present posts an 85 percent graduation rate, how is it possible to expect every single senior to earn a diploma?

The backdrop to Mr. Jennings’ comment, discussed in the news article, is recently enacted emergency legislation that allows Ohio school officials to award diplomas based on their judgment of student readiness. This applies only to the class of 2020, and waives normal state graduation requirements such as passing state exams or meeting career-technical standards.

While such flexibility is likely necessary in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the burden now falls on district leaders to make responsible decisions about graduation.

Naturally, those officials throughout Ohio will be pressed to use their discretionary authority to wave every senior through. They’ll surely face special pleading from community groups and educators as well as parents and students, citing the difficult circumstances facing the class of 2020.

Districts may be tempted to use this opportunity to further inflate their already sky-high graduation rates. Automatic diplomas are akin to the familiar but discredited practice of “social promotion,” whereby students are passed along from grade to grade regardless of their knowledge and skills.

It’s true that this year’s seniors face painful disruptions, and awarding diplomas feels like a way to soothe the hurt. Still, local authorities should resist the “blanket” approach that CEO Jennings seems to be taking.

Casually handing out diplomas to young people who haven’t earned them inflicts significant harm on those who aren’t ready for what comes next. Students who receive diplomas while still struggling with basic math and literacy are apt to face a lifetime of frustration. College may be permanently out of reach and career options blighted. For many low-skilled individuals trapped in menial jobs, difficulties will arise in making ends meet.

Those are consequences of indiscriminately promoting students during normal times. Making prospects even dimmer for this year’s seniors is the nationwide labor market meltdown caused by the pandemic. With most employers shedding jobs, it’s going to be tough for graduates planning to work to secure decent employment. Many ill-prepared young people will likely end up unemployed or settling for part-time work.

In the coming days, school authorities will have some tough calls to make. The pandemic has scrambled the senior year of some students who were on the cusp of finishing their graduation requirements. Those young people deserve the right to take their next step. But others, especially those who are far behind in course credit or post low exam scores, may be better off postponing graduation and staying in school. While that may be an unpopular decision, requiring such students to repeat their senior years could help them build a foundation that lasts, while avoiding the immediate consequences of today’s economic downturn.

Ohio is relying on the professionalism and integrity of school leaders in awarding diplomas during these extraordinary times. The pressure to pass all seniors will be strong. But succumbing to that impulse will deprive thousands of young people of the skills they need to succeed once the storms have passed.

Aaron Churchill is Ohio Research Director for Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy organization based in Columbus.

columns@tribtoday.com

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