In the beginning of the school year, Akron North High School senior Sita Bhandari was on track to earn all the class credits she needed to graduate. But after multiple attempts at taking state tests, the Nepal native still hadn’t earned enough cumulative points to receive her diploma.

“When I came here, it was really hard to learn English ... It was the biggest struggle for me,” Bhandari, who started at North in 2014, said. “It was really bad for me, because I didn’t pass all the tests. I almost cried at the time.”

But after yet another change in educational expectations at the state level, Bhandari was one of 537 Akron seniors who took an alternative pathway to graduation this year, allowing her to receive her diploma on time.

The state put alternative requirements in place for students in the class of 2018 only who earned all of their school credits but did not score high enough on state tests, even after retesting, to graduate on time. The state has not yet determined what will be required for future graduates.

At the beginning of the school year, 54 percent of students in Akron Public Schools had passed all their state tests and were on track to earn the class credits to graduate.

At that point, the district identified and targeted 537 of the 1,444 seniors in the class of 2018 who were on track to earn the class credits but not the test points. They were required to take a “senior project” class from October until the end of the year to fulfill two of the state’s nine alternative requirements for this year, which included a senior capstone project, 120 hours of community service, a 93 percent attendance rate and a 2.5 GPA or higher.

Some of the students who took the senior project class passed their state tests after retesting, but because those results didn’t come back until later in the year, they were still required to take the class as a backup to assure they graduate on time.

An additional 129 of those 1,444 seniors didn’t have to take the class, either because they were missing too many credit hours to make up in time to graduate or because they were expected to pass another test that allowed them to graduate.

Now, because of the district’s push, officials expect nearly 93 percent of those 1,444 seniors will graduate on time. However, Akron’s actual graduation rate will be lower because of other factors such as the district’s dropout rate.

State inconsistencies

The alternative requirements provided a welcome cushion for educators and students who have grappled with ever-changing expectations from the state over the past five years.

Between evolving state test vendors, expectations, benchmarks and testing subjects from the state level, educators have decried the state for its inconsistency, especially in relation to the class of 2018.

“This class, they were the experiment of what this end-of-the-year exam should look like,” Mark Black, Akron’s director of secondary education, said.

This year alone, the state adjusted how it calculated the passing of state tests. Prior to this school year, students were required to score a 3 or higher (out of 5) on each of their tests to graduate.

Beginning this year, students needed to score at least 18 out of a maximum 35 points total on their seven state tests to graduate while earning a minimum score in each subject area. If a student scored 20 points total on the tests, for example, but did not earn the minimum score needed in the subject of science to pass, that student would not graduate.

Brittany Halpin, the associate director for media relations for the Ohio Department of Education, said the alternative pathways were put into place after a work group was formed “in response to concerns from local superintendents” who estimated a drastically lower graduation rate for this year’s class due to the evolving state expectations.

The state and the school district insist that the pathways are still rigorous, but they allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in ways beyond the traditional pencil-and-paper test.

Preparing for failure?

But critics insist that the new pathways are a cop-out for educators and only prepare the students for failure after high school.

In a Beacon Journal editorial, Chad Aldis of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute criticized the district specifically for its push of the alternative requirements.

“The new requirements are absurdly easy,” Aldis wrote. “… Many voices had warned that lowering the bar in this way could have serious consequences, as it would erase all incentives for districts to focus on ways to improve students’ mastery of actual academic content. Unfortunately, it appears that is exactly what’s happening in Akron.”

Although it was just one option of nine from the state, in Akron, all 537 identified students had to complete a four-part inquiry project.

They began in October and had a number of topics the district gave them to choose from. Bhandari researched and created a presentation about racism, for example, while Buchtel student Ja’shawn Campbell chose violence in schools.

The students agreed they’d learned from the projects, but they were able to complete them in a matter of days — for Campbell, it took two.

What took more time and was more rewarding for the students was the community service portion that many students also opted to complete.

Bhandari spent 120 hours helping older refugees learn how to speak English and learn about the country, while Campbell spent the same amount of time helping his basketball coach teach younger kids how to play the game, along with other community efforts.

“I feel like I learned how to be a role model toward younger students,” said Campbell, who was just one test point away from graduating.

Black said the alternative pathways allowed the students to demonstrate what they’d learned throughout the year, and taught them useful skills that have a broader reach than traditional academics.

“The alternative pathways were not a substitution,” Black said. “They were an add-on to all the other expectations [students] had to meet.”

Halpin said the department of education will be collecting data about the 2018 graduates in the upcoming months to determine if students who took the alternative pathways were prepared for life beyond high school.

The State Board of Education is currently discussing potential recommendations about extending the offerings to future graduating classes, and the department of education has brought together a work group to discuss it further.

Focus is on kids

But for the moment, the focus is on kids who are in-seat and preparing to, or already did, graduate this year. Black said the alternative pathways especially helped students like Bhandari, who speak English as a second language, and Campbell, who transferred to multiple high schools throughout his four years and didn’t benefit from consistent expectations from one school, let alone the state.

Both students graduated Thursday and plan to attend college in the fall — and both say they feel ready to do so.

“I’m very excited about graduation,” Bhandari said. “I never thought I’d graduate from North High School.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.