XP Marks the Spot: Flexibility and Focus Meet in Ohio’s New Graduation Requirements
Ohio's high school class of 2023 will be the first to graduate under a reimagined set of state requirements. Much like the education-employment pathways they emphasize, the requirements overlap in some areas. These intentional intersections are part of an eclectic but coordinated set of options for aligning high school graduation with positive post-completion outcomes.
In addition to course completion, the new requirements include competency and readiness criteria. Students who fail state competency tests can choose alternate paths to success, including the Career Experience and Technical Skill option. On the other hand, the readiness criterion applies to all students. To meet it, they must earn two "graduation seals."
Also new to Ohio -- or at least (for now) Southwest Ohio -- is a career-exploration system designed for high school students and young adults. Known in its pilot form as Exponential Pathways (XP), the program is being tested in the Cincinnati area and five other regions around the country. CAEL and its partners designed the technology solution to boost economic mobility by integrating local education and employment resources so students can better navigate the complex pathways that connect education, training, and rewarding careers. XP is made possible by the U.S. Department of Education's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.
Mark Edwards is director of curriculum and communication for Reading Community Schools, located north of Cincinnati in Hamilton County. He sees lots of upside in the contemporaneous timing of XP and Ohio's holistic high school completion requirements. Edwards, who is in his first year with Reading, arrived at the district with a focus on post-high school outcomes and some key connections to both the Ohio Department of Education and CAEL. He had become aware of the XP program through his involvement with Harvard's Proving Ground while serving as the director of college and career readiness for another Ohio school district.
In August 2022, shortly after joining Reading Community Schools, Edwards drew upon those connections to coalesce a group of area high schools, businesses, and colleges into the XP pilot program for Southwest Ohio. He explained that for traditional high schools like those in the pilot, which don't have their own comprehensive CTE programs, several options under the new state requirements are especially helpful. "We focus on providing industry-recognized credentials, the Ohio Means Jobs Readiness Seal, and pre-apprenticeship programs." Each resonates with XP, which offers students interactive access to skills and interest surveys, education and career pathways, and even virtual mentors.
The Ohio Department of Education compiled an expansive list of industry-recognized credentials, organized within 13 career pathways, from which students can choose. Based on degree of difficulty, the department assigns a point value between 1 and 12 to each. (Most are worth three points.) Students who earn 12 points of industry-recognized credentials are halfway to completing the competency graduation requirement.
While students can mix and match within any of the 13 career pathways, they must focus on one to reach their 12-point total. "The beauty of this is that it creates a meaningful learning experience that connects students with opportunities" vs. "checking a box," said Edwards.
Much like the industry-recognized credentials, students have plenty of choices when it comes to earning a readiness seal. To graduate, all students must complete two seals, one of which must be state defined. Serendipitously, the Ohio Means Jobs Readiness Seal is not only state defined, but also satisfies half of the above-mentioned competency alternative. To earn the seal, students must display proficiency in 14 professional skills. Students work with mentors who document these proficiencies across at least two of three contexts: school, work, and community.
While Reading high school students can earn some industry-recognized credentials in house, many must be completed through partnerships. That keeps the school tapped into the latest workforce demands and businesses tapped into a healthy talent pipeline. "The whole system incentivizes school districts to gain industry partners to work together to fill these credential requirements," said Edwards. He added that several employers are using Ohio Department of Commerce grants to help their current workers upskill using the same credentials, further testament to the interconnection of education-employment pathways and the credentials' relevance.
Edwards praises the premium the state's approach places on such connections. But as they grow, so does complexity. For Edwards, that's where XP especially shines. XP's ability to link disparate opportunities in one platform is a major benefit, he said. "Because every single district has a different organizational structure, employers may not know whether to contact a counselor, a curriculum director, a superintendent ... whoever has the passion around this can be hard to identify district to district."
At the same time, connecting resources within a central portal allows educators to present them to students in an accessible and navigable fashion. "The power behind this is you have one contact who is running this platform and able to connect all students in the entire area," said Edwards. In the case of the Southwest Ohio pilot, that is the Hamilton County Educational Service Center, which is coordinating XP collaboration among the participating school districts.
Policymakers prize such connections because of the life-changing impact they can deliver for students and communities, said Edwards. That is one reason XP has become a passion project for him. Especially for students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, "We need to get them connected with employers prior to leaving high school. When we do that, we see much better outcomes that can break the cycle of generational poverty."
Edwards recalled one high school student at his previous school who participated in an internship before graduating, about six years ago. The student recently finished college and has been hired by the same company that partnered with the district on the work-based learning experience.
Edwards describes the workforce pivot in Ohio secondary education as a shift from a "sit and get" learning paradigm to one that embraces experiences "outside of our walls." While he thinks student hesitancy is a hallmark of any new approach, "As the infrastructure grows, it will become more commonplace. That's why XP fits so well. It will help school districts better manage these pieces with employers and students."
Edwards believes the battery of XP and the new state requirements can help students unbundle the traditional education-employment pathway, a benefit to all involved. "It's really flipping the model of 'I need to leave high school, go to a college for four years, sit and be trained, and then be ready to go,'" he said. "We have such a shortage in workforce right now that we need to accelerate this, we need to get kids embedded and have them work toward some credentials along the way."
Employers, he said, are willing to take a chance on students not yet fully trained, knowing they can play a direct role through pathways like apprenticeships, which also leave the door open for traditional college completion. Edwards described how one of his employer partners starts high school graduates at $23 per hour and offers them 100% college tuition reimbursement. "People think about athletic scholarships and academic scholarships; that's a work scholarship. It's a different pathway. And it's one that can be very viable for many different folks."
Edwards hopes XP opens up such pathways to many more high schoolers. Beginning this month and continuing throughout the year, Edwards and his colleagues at the other participating southwest Ohio school districts will add the first students to the XP pilot.
Edwards is thankful for the manifold support XP has received, from the state and county level to Reading Community School District’s own leadership. “They have the foresight to allow me to pursue this work for the benefit of Reading students.
“I am also grateful for the leadership at our state level and the coordination on creating a systematic approach that is helping not only businesses develop stronger pipelines to workforce development, but also students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to connect to rewarding careers.”
Edwards added that without the partnership of the Hamilton County Educational Service Center and Donna Lauver, the center’s regional workforce coordinator, the pilot wouldn’t have been possible. “They have been an integral part of helping bring so many partnerships together.”