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Ohio Lawmakers Attack Four-Tiered-Diploma System

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Key Ohio legislators have called for the dismantling of the state's unique four-tiered diploma system following a poor showing by 9th graders on proficiency tests used to determine which type of diploma they will receive.

The House is expected soon to vote on a bill, sponsored by Representative Ronald V. Gerberry, chairman of the education committee, that would abolish the four-tiered diploma system, while still making receipt of a diploma contingent on passage of the proficiency test.

The measure, House Bill 55, was approved by the committee this month after being endorsed by the state education department and several education groups. It is expected to pass the House easily.

"There is strong public support to do away with the four-tiered-diploma system before it is implemented" with the students who graduate in 1994, Mr. Gerberry said.

The tiered-diploma system, which has not been adopted by any other state, was approved as a conference-committee amendment to a 1987 budget bill and has never been subjected to a full legislative debate.

Gov. George V. Voinovich, however, has endorsed the current tiered system, telling reporters this month that awarding differentiated diplomas based on the proficiency test results is "the only way we're going to get people's attention."

"Our young people are capable of learning. The challenge is, are we capable of teaching?" he said. "That diploma should have some value in the marketplace."

Senator H. Cooper Snyder, chair man of the Senate education committee--who two years ago refused to advance a similar House measure to the Senate floor--said last week he was willing to hold hearings on HB 55 to determine if the diploma system needs to be changed.

But, Mr. Snyder added, he was pleased that the results of the 9th grade proficiency test "shook the hell out of everybody." The current system, he argued, should be given time to do what it was intended to do--guide education reform by highlighting deficiencies.

High Failure Rates

Several legislators said last week that pressure to repeal the tiered diploma system increased after two thirds of Ohio 9th graders failed at least one of four proficiency tests, in reading, writing, mathematics, and citizenship, that were administered for the first time in November.

When the test results were taken individually, 78 percent of students passed reading and 76 percent passed writing tests. But only 55 percent passed citizenship and only 3 percent passed math.

Moreover, only 11 percent of black students passed all four tests, and Cleveland and Dayton each had cumulative failure rates of 90 percent.

Under the tiered-diploma system, students who fail to pass the 9th-grade tests in several more at tempts by the end of their senior year will receive "certificates of attendance" rather than diplomas.

Students must also pass a separate 12th-grade proficiency test to qualify for a "diploma of distinction," awarded to college-track students who meet certain school-district requirements, or a "diploma of commendation," awarded to students who satisfy the local requirements, maintain a 3.25 grade-point aver age, and meet more rigid requirements established by the state.

Students who pass the 9th-grade test but do not meet the other requirements will receive a conventional diploma.

Senator W. Scott Oelslager, a member his chamber's education committee, faulted the tests for failing to take into account local conditions and the fact that "good students can be poor test-takers."

Senator Oelslager also expressed concern that teachers will simply teach to the proficiency tests, adding that he has heard from college and business officials that giving out four different types of diplomas would cause confusion.

Mr. Oelslager said a majority of the education panel had co-sponsored with him a bill that would abolish the tests altogether. It calls for providing traditional diplomas for students who meet district curriculum requirements and honors diplomas for students who also meet special state standards.

Mr. Oelslager said he was willing to abandon his bill in favor of HB 55, but indicated he would try to amend the bill to abolish the tests.

Effects on Dropouts Feared

Robert L. Moore, a spokesman for the state education department, said that while members of the state board of education have felt that earning a diploma should be contingent on the 9th- and 12th-grade proficiency tests, "we were never of the opinion that the four-tiered-diploma system was a good idea."

"The entire education community saw immediately that that piece of legislation would put our kids at a total disadvantage, in that it would encourage dropouts and would cause many kids to give up on getting a high-school education," Mr. Moore said, echoing opinions issued by the Ohio Education Association, the Ohio School Boards Association, and other groups.

But Senator Eugene J. Watts, the Columbus Republican who wrote the four-tiered-diploma law, asserted that it provides plenty of remediation to help students pass the proficiency tests. The system is needed, he argued, to help schools improve.

"Do you really want to give diplomas to kids who can't read or write?" he asked. "Who have you helped?"

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