Ray Carter | January 20, 2021
Oklahoma school district says diploma is no indicator of learning
In a court filing, an Oklahoma school district has declared the issuance of either a passing grade or a high school diploma is not—“and never has been”—an indicator that a student mastered state-mandated core courses.
Lone Grove Public Schools also stated that any court order tethering a high-school diploma to mastery of high-school core course content could negatively impact all public schools in Oklahoma.
The district’s declaration was made in response to a lawsuit filed by 19-year-old Kolton Ellis, who is seeking to re-enroll as a fifth-year senior despite having received a diploma from the Lone Grove school district last spring.
Among other things, Ellis said—and Lone Grove officials do not deny—that the school gave him between a semester and a full year’s worth of credit for several classes based on as little as 43.5 minutes of online instruction per course.
“Defendants have undertaken a fraudulent scheme to deprive Plaintiff of a tuition-free public education which would adequately prepare him for mastery of state-mandated courses to simply push Plaintiff through the system,” a petition filed by Ellis’ attorneys stated.
“Successful mastery of state-mandated core courses is not currently, and never has been, the graduation standard for students in Oklahoma public schools.”
Another motion filed by Ellis’ attorneys stated that the youth had “for years struggled academically” at the district and that his parents had “sought a specialized course of study through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (‘IDEA’) but said request for an Individualized Education Plan (‘IEP’) was denied by the District.”
Instead, the district gave Ellis credit for coursework done through two online providers that required a fraction of the normal time—an amount of time so small that Ellis’ legal team argued it is “unbelievable” that Ellis could have mastered the content sufficiently to obtain a valid passing grade and associated high-school diploma. Ellis’ petition noted he was enrolled in English II through Lone Grove’s credit-recovery online program, “Longhorn Academy,” from Aug. 13 to Sept. 9. School records show Ellis completed that course, which is supposed to reflect a half-year of schoolwork, in 1.2 hours total.
Ellis simultaneously enrolled in Biology I through “Longhorn Academy” and received credit for a half-year of coursework based on 2.7 hours of total instruction.
From Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, Ellis was enrolled in the Math of Finance course through “Longhorn Academy” and received credit for a full year of academic work based on 43.5 minutes of online instruction.
“Plaintiff contends it is inconceivable that he could successfully master a full academic year of Mathematics in less than one hour of instruction,” Ellis’ petition stated.
The petition noted that high-school credits are generally awarded based on receiving 120 hours of instruction in one subject via meeting four or five times a week for 40 to 60 minutes per session for 36 to 40 weeks per year.
Oklahoma law also requires that districts provide 1,080 hours of instruction per school year over as many as 180 days.
In total, Ellis’ legal filings show he was awarded 2.5 total credits for Biology I (0.5 credit), English II (0.5 credit), Mathematics (one credit), and World History (0.5 credit) based on “less than five hours of online instruction from the District.”
“Rather than proceeding to college and being forced to pay for remedial courses for which college credit would not be earned, Plaintiff has sought to have District revoke the diploma he was issued in May 2020 and allow Plaintiff to repeat enroll as a fifth-year Senior,” one of Ellis’ legal filings stated.
In a brief requesting dismissal of the lawsuit, the Lone Grove school district declared Ellis is asking the court “to adopt a graduation criterion that does not exist under Oklahoma law—namely mastery of state-mandated courses.”
“Nowhere within the Oklahoma statutes or applicable administrative regulations does there exist a requirement that a student achieve some undefined level of successful mastery of state-mandated courses in order to earn a credit that applies towards graduation,” the Lone Grove district argued.
The Lone Grove district did not deny issuing a full year of course credit for less than one hour of online work.
The school district response continued, saying that “successful mastery of state-mandated core courses is not currently, and never has been, the graduation standard for students in Oklahoma public schools.”
If the court required that passing grades reflect a level of mastery, Lone Grove officials said it would “render the A-F standard grading system meaningless.” The district described student grades as designed to track credits required for graduation, saying A-F grading is a “system whereby class credit towards graduation is given for grades A-D and a failing grade of ‘F’ results in no credit."
In its brief, Lone Grove argued any change in that system would “fundamentally affect every other student who graduated high school at the end of the 2019-2020 school year and before.”
The Lone Grove district did not deny issuing a full year of course credit for less than one hour of online work and instead said such practices are legal under Oklahoma law and the regulations of the Oklahoma State Department of Education.
“…Kolton took remedial, credit recovery courses through the District’s credit recovery program,” the Lone Grove brief stated. “These classes are specifically permitted by Oklahoma law and the District’s Internet-Based Instruction policy.”
The school argued that any court order striking down the use of short-term online courses in lieu of full-time instruction would “potentially invalidate every other student’s diploma that has graduated not only from the District after having taken a remedial/credit recovery course, but every other Oklahoma public school.”
Lone Grove officials also argued the case “is really about Kolton wanting to have another year to play high school baseball.”
Lone Grove’s attorneys in the case are from Rosenstein, Fist & Ringold, a firm that has represented hundreds of districts across Oklahoma. The firm has represented schools involved in several prior school-district controversies.
Even as Lone Grove officials argued that class grades do not necessarily reflect student mastery of course content, district officials also pointed to Ellis’s grade-point average as evidence that Ellis “has more than earned the credits necessary to graduate despite having less than an exemplary academic career,” stating that Ellis had a 2.31 grade-point average on 4.0 scale.
Similarly, the school also cited Ellis’s score on the ACT college-admission test, saying Ellis received an 18 on the ACT. (A 36 is a perfect score on that test.)
However, a score of 18 suggests Ellis is not college-ready in one or more areas tested. The composite score is a combination of the scores a student achieves in four separate areas. The ACT describes benchmark scores as being “the minimum ACT scores required for students to have a high probability of success in credit-bearing first-year college courses.” The benchmark scores for the ACT are English, 18; Mathematics, 22; Reading, 22; and Science, 23.
Lone Grove officials also tacitly noted that other Lone Grove students fared worse, noting Ellis ranked 54th out of 78 students in his senior class.
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.