Pickerington Local School District officials are mapping new plans to ensure as many students as possible can meet the state's minimum graduation requirements.

In February, just weeks before a COVID-19 coronavirus-related school shutdown statewide, the Ohio Department of Education announced it was changing minimum graduation requirements beginning with the class of 2023.

The new standards won't require high school seniors to be proficient in math or English to receive a diploma, but they will require them to show "competency" in both subjects, meaning they meet the qualifications for employment as a cashier, server, warehouse worker or home-health aide.

"Students will continue to have the requirement that they earn at least 20 credits through their high school coursework," said Julie Novel, a teaching and learning coordinator for the district. "But instead of 18 points on the state test, students can now demonstrate competency in Algebra I and on the state English Language Arts II tests.

"If they struggle to show college and career readiness through the algebra and English tests, they have the option of demonstrating career competency, or college competency or military competency."

In announcing the changes to districts through a February 2020 newsletter, ODE Superintendent Paolo DeMaria said the minimum competency score on both the algebra and English tests would be 684 for the class of 2023 and beyond.

That is lower than the 700 to 724 range students have had to meet to show "proficiency."

DeMaria said "competency" means establishing a student is prepared for a "high-school-diploma-only job position."

Although those new standards won't apply to the class of 2021, Novel told Pickerington school board members June 22, the district has 115 students in that class who are "projected to score below competency for Algebra I and another 97 projected to score below the 684 for English Language Arts II."

She said 436 students, or 19%, of those who will be in grades 9 to 11 during the 2020-21 school year are projected to be below the competency scores.

Starting with the class of 2023, students must earn a minimum of 20 credits in required subjects, earn two diploma seals demonstrating various skills and achievements, and score at competency level or better on Algebra I and English Language Arts II end-of-course exams.

Students failing to pass both tests have three alternatives to graduate: earn an industry credential or acceptance into an approved apprenticeship program; enter the military; or earn credit for at least one college-level math or English course through the tuition-free College Credit Plus program for high school students.

Currently, the district lacks the number of industry credential or approved apprenticeship programs it can offer as alternative pathways to graduation, Novel said.

She said the district would seek to establish stronger ties with businesses and business organizations to foster apprenticeship programs while also looking to beef up industry credential offerings.

Novel said the district plans to implement math intervention at the high school level and bolster assistance to those needing help in English language arts.

After identifying students at risk of falling short of the requirements, the district must develop individualized plans to help them, Novel said.

She said the district has "existing mechanisms" but needs to formalize its curriculum and intervention to address the state changes.

"We have to respond to this information," she said. "We have some ideas.

"We've had this information forever, but it didn't mean anything six months ago because there were other ways to clear the hurdle."

As "part of a larger conversation," Novel said, district officials and school board members should consider the types of elective classes offered to high school students.

"Maybe we need to take this opportunity to be more strategic in what we're offering and to sort of push in this direction with credentials, pre-apprenticeships," she said. "Our students are going to require those options, and the (Eastland-Fairfield) career center can't handle all of them.

"We want to be able to provide support for students to document and track their graduation requirements. This might be an intervention and enrichment period for ninth- and 10th-grade students, and it might be an actual period in the school day for upperclassmen."

Board member Cathy Olshefski said it would take time for the district to adjust, but it will be "wonderful to me once we get there" because the standards will address what she sees as shortfalls of educated students who go directly into careers following their high school graduations.

Reporter Catherine Candisky of The Columbus Dispatch contributed to this story.

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