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Ohio's Controversial 4-Tiered Diploma Dies Quietly in Testing-Reform Measure

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Ohio's controversial four-tiered high-school diploma system is expected to be quietly shelved this week, two years after it was adopted in a high-profile effort to raise student achievement.

No students graduated under the law, which would have awarded the first set of different diplomas in the spring of 1994.

Intended to offer diplomas ranging from a "certificate of attendance'' to a "diploma of distinction,'' the law will be replaced by a traditional system which awards a single diploma and recognizes honor graduates. Gov. George V. Voinovich is scheduled to sign the bill this week.

The differentiated-diploma plan, which had received considerable national attention and was the source of debate within Ohio, died quietly in the legislature, wrapped in a bill that would revise the state's proficiency testing system.

Backers of the revision said it would go further to ensure student achievement than the carrot-and-stick approach lawmakers had envisioned when they passed the multiple-diploma plan.

"It was like playing Wheel of Fortune. It was very confusing,'' said Representative Ron Gerberry, the chairman of the House Education Committee and a longtime opponent of the plan. "This doesn't make us work in as much of a circus-like atmosphere.''

Linkage to Tests

The old law had established a complex system that linked diplomas to the passage of state tests.

For students who completed four years of high school but never passed a 9th-grade competency test--which they could take twice yearly--the state would have provided a "certificate of attendance.''

Graduates who passed the 9th-grade exam at some point, but who did not pass a similar 12th-grade test, would have received a "certificate of basic competency.'' Those who passed the 12th-grade test were eligible for a "diploma of commendation.''

The highest level, "diploma of distinction,'' was reserved for students who passed the 12th-grade test and who surpassed some local achievement standard, such as a high grade-point average.

By contrast, the new system set by House Bill 55 would tie the awarding of a diploma only to completion of four years of schooling and passage of the 9th-grade test.

The bill would also phase out achievement exams and ability tests, which the state now administers to all 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th graders.

In their place, the state will develop proficiency tests for 4th, 9th, and 12th graders, and another exam for 6th or 7th graders. The bill would also add science to the state's existing tests for reading, writing, mathematics, and citizenship. The new tests would commence in the fall of 1995.

'A Good, Workable System'

The state board of education would be charged with setting several achievement standards that could be used in awarding a state honors diploma. About 200 Ohio districts currently award honors graduates based on local academic achievement criteria, officials said.

One of the state's standards would be passage of the 12th-grade test, but under the bill, lawmakers would allow students to fail to meet one of the standards and still receive the honors certificate.

"Thank goodness the process gave us a good, workable diploma system,'' Mr. Gerberry said, citing many school administrators' concerns about the multiple-diploma system. "It is unfortunate that sometimes legislative bodies do things without thoroughly looking at them.''

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