diploma discussions

Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

For years, Indiana has been grappling with how to re-imagine high school diplomas. Today, educators made a seemingly simple suggestion to state officials: Condense Indiana’s four-diploma system down to just one.

“Indiana needs just one diploma,” said Richard Arkanoff, superintendent for Center Grove schools. “But it’s critically important that we provide students with many multiple pathways to get to that one diploma.”

In a community meeting Tuesday night at Noblesville East Middle School, Ken Folks, chief of government affairs at the Indiana Department of Education, said the department is also interested in looking at a single diploma with different “gradations” depending on student needs.

Arkanoff was one of several educators who addressed the graduation pathways committee, led by the Indiana State Board of Education. The group is charged by Indiana lawmakers with creating pathways that will help determine students’ readiness for life after high school.

Currently, Indiana students have a single graduation requirement outside of what’s needed to earn a diploma — passing end-of-course exams in math and English. But next school year, that changes. Instead, to graduate, students will need to complete the pathway, which will replace the two tests, and earn a diploma. It’s not yet clear what those pathways will look like.

Byron Ernest, a state board member and the chairman of the committee, urged members to stay focused on the pathways.

“The purpose of this panel is to create a new system for determining if a student is ready to graduate high school,” Ernest said, adding later that the committee is not responsible for revamping the state’s diploma structure.

Multiple previous efforts to redo diploma requirements have resulted in little action and several false starts. The main impetus behind this flurry of discussion is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which states that the general diploma can no longer count in the graduation rate Indiana must report to the federal government starting as early as 2018.

The general diploma is a pared-down option that only about 12 percent of Indiana students receive.

To many at the meeting, any conversation about graduation would naturally include diplomas, especially when there is so much urgency around the ESSA changes.

Because of the change, many schools across the state — as well as the state as a whole — would see graduation rates drop, a main factor in high schools’ A-F grades. If a school’s rate falls below 67 percent, the school could also be identified as needing extra support from the state. Folks said 275 Indiana high schools could face that reality going forward.

Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, is one example. She said the ESSA change would have gotten her below or close to the two-thirds mark in 2016 and 2017.

“The news about Indiana’s diploma options and connections to ESSA hit Brown County very hard,” she said.

Indiana lawmakers both at the state and federal level wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking for some time to deal with change before consequences would take effect.

Mary Burton, director of the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative, said a single diploma could also offer benefits for students with special needs, who disproportionately receive general diplomas.

“It’s clear to students that the general diploma is of lesser value,” Burton said. “How about one diploma with (extra certifications)? This option would allow for the rigor we expect from all of our students while respecting and valuing each student’s learning differences.”

According to 2015 data compiled by Achieve, a nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, 27 states offer multiple high school diploma options. A 2016 analysis from the Virginia Department of Education found that of the 10 states with the highest percentages of graduates going to college, most had moved from multiple diplomas to just one.

Indiana has convened numerous panels and spent scores of hours discussing diplomas and post-high school options for students, with very little action taken.

The discussion around graduation pathways is a variation on that theme. So far, what a pathway is and how it might be structured has not been clearly defined. Mainly, the meetings have brought together educators, community members and business leaders to have wide-ranging conversations about preparing kids for life after high school, whether that’s college, career, military or other options.

After today, the group has six more meetings scheduled through early November.

Indiana graduation pathways

Indiana touts workforce readiness. But it could judge schools by a college prep test.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana’s Republican leaders have spent the majority of this year’s legislative session highlighting the importance of preparing students for the workforce. Why then, educators ask, is the state planning to use college entrance exams to measure schools?

That apparent contradiction was among the complaints raised Friday by teachers and administrators during a public comment session about Indiana’s proposed A-F grading rules for schools.

“The intent (of A-F grades) has always been to make school performance transparent and easily understood by students, staff, parents and community members,” said Liz Walters, principal at Beech Grove High School. “The proposed accountability rule does anything but that.”

This year, there are a few major proposals that could change how the state measures schools and student learning — plans for a new testing system for all grades, new graduation requirements, and preparations to change A-F grades to comply with new federal laws. Though technically separate, they are all related, and changes to one proposal can affect the others. It’s the different intentions behind these plans, said Walters and other educators, that send mixed signals.

First, Indiana is in the process of creating a new testing system to replace ISTEP, and the high school portion is still undecided. Plans are now in the works through House Bill 1426 to have high-schoolers take a college entrance exam, such as the SAT and ACT, instead of the 10th-grade ISTEP they take now.

Indiana is also creating new “graduation pathways” to replace the current English and math exams students must pass to earn a diploma. The goal, lawmakers and policymakers have said, is to make the criteria students will have to meet more valuable to their post-high school plans, such as earning a technical license or credits for college.

And finally, Indiana, like every state in the country, is re-thinking how it rates schools as a result of new federal education law. Those new federal rules mean the state has to rewrite its A-F grading policy, which includes rules around testing and graduation. The Indiana State Board of Education can use the feedback it gets from public comments to revise its proposed rules before taking a final vote sometime this summer.

At Friday’s meeting, Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township, said making the high school test worth up to 30 percent of a school’s grade just doesn’t make sense. Exams like the SAT and ACT weren’t designed to measure high school state academic standards, Butts said, and more importantly, of the Indiana students who did take them, 78 percent had average composite scores below the recommended cut-off for college readiness from testing companies. Holding schools to such a standard is unfair, he said.

And when Gov. Eric Holcomb and other legislative leaders have made workforce readiness a central part of their 2018 legislative agendas, he said, it sends a mixed message.

“Why determine 30 percent of a high school’s success on a single exam … designed as a predictor, not indicator, of college success, taken by all kids regardless of the path chosen?” Butts said.

Butts acknowledged that the college entrance exam plan will likely move ahead. Lawmakers are wrapping up the 2018 session next week, and the bill has received support from both houses.

Rep. Bob Behning, who wrote the bill with the college entrance exam proposal, said the change would help eliminate the many test retakes that occured with the current system. It also, he has told policymakers, could prove more useful and relevant for students than a state-specific content area exam. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has also supported the move to a college entrance test.

Indiana’s focus on workforce readiness is part of a broader national push to ensure students are prepared for life after high school, where college is just one of several options.

Yet the state’s policy changes have gone back and forth between prioritizing the importance of rigorous college-level coursework and freedom from regulations that can make it hard for less academically inclined students to be successful. But ultimately, federal law requires a uniform measure of student learning — in Indiana’s case, A-F grades.

Educators’ other concern with the A-F grading proposal was that it no longer factors in high school students’ improvement on tests and reduces the its importance for K-8 schools.

“Capping that growth really removes the part of the great job our teachers do in the classroom,” said Todd Terrill, a superintendent from Richmond. “I truly believe that growth is the greatest indicator of academic success and accomplishment.”

Overall, about 15 people showed up for the Friday morning meeting. Richard Arkanoff, superintendent in Center Grove, argued the low attendance reflected concerns from educators that their voices aren’t being heard. He mentioned the state board’s vote in December to approve the graduation pathways plan, where dozens of educators spent hours speaking against the sweeping proposal.

“I don’t remember the last time, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years, that that many people spoke against something and it fell on deal ears,” Arkanoff said. “People are feeling as if they are not going to be heard, so why bother?”

The state board is scheduled to hold another A-F grade rule public comment session from 4-7 p.m. on Monday, March 19, at Ivy Tech’s Illinois Fall Creek Center.

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.