first draft

Graduating from high school could get more complicated in Indiana, and some fear equity is taking a back seat

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The discussions out of the graduation pathway committee have been illustrated by several graphic artists.

Indiana is one step closer to a new, more complex system of high school graduation requirements that go beyond what’s already required for a diploma.

A draft of recommendations from the state committee charged with coming up with these new “graduation pathways” include adding “career awareness and exploration” in grades three through eight, among a number of other possible tests and activities.

The pathways would replace current rules that say all high school students must pass state English and math tests to graduate.

“The goal for this panel is to establish graduation pathway recommendations that create an educated and talented workforce able not just to meet the needs of business and higher education, but able to succeed in all postsecondary endeavors,” the draft says.

The panel’s draft recommendations bear a striking resemblance to the original test-heavy pathways set out in the law (page 27), said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. After eight meetings and many hours of discussion, McCormick said she’d have liked to see more innovative work by now.

“Really if you look at the list it came back down to exactly how the law was written,” McCormick said. “We are having a discussion about our current graduation pathway, a lot of things that are already in our accountability system … We’ve laid it out differently, we’ve packaged it differently, but the contents don’t look a whole lot different.”

Here are potential pathway options the panel has outlined so far. A student would need to complete all diploma requirements as well as at least three of the following:

Potential Indiana graduation pathways

Pathway General requirements Honors requirements
Applied learning work-, project-, or service-based learning experience measured by a portfolio of student work, a school evaluation or an employer evaluation Same as general requirements
Tests (end-of-course assessments plus one of the following) A score of 22 on the ACT, 1010 on the SAT or 35 on the ASVAB A score of 26 on the ACT, 1250 on the SAT or 75 on the ASVAB
Career credentials 6 career and technical education credits in a particular area 6 career and technical education credits in a particular area or completing an industry-recognized credential
College credits 6 transcripted credits 9 transcripted credits, including at least 3 from AP or IB exams
GPA 2.5 GPA or higher 3.0 GPA or higher

During the panel’s meeting, McCormick said she worried that the pathways would include options that not all students had access to.

The Indiana State Board of Education’s legal staff brushed of her concern, as did several committee members.

“Indiana’s Constitution doesn’t require we afford equal access to all pathways to all students,” said Chad Ranney, the state board’s deputy general counsel.

McCormick was undeterred. When that inequity exists for a milestone as big as graduation, she said, it’s a problem regardless of what the law says.

“Legal doesn’t make it correct,” she said.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican on the panel and chairman of the House Education Committee, said the recently passed “course access program” could help mitigate such disparities. The program would allow districts to pay for classes from a yet-to-be-created menu of online or third-party education providers.

The final pathways would replace Indiana’s current graduation test — end-of-course exams in English and math — that all students must pass to receive their diploma unless they are granted a waiver. But the exams themselves aren’t necessarily going anywhere.

The federal government requires that high school students take state tests in English, math and science. In Indiana, those high school tests will likely be end-of-course exams under the ILEARN system, which goes into effect in 2019. Currently, high schoolers must take a 10th-grade ISTEP test.

Graduation waivers would be granted to students who can’t meet enough of the above pathway requirements. Instead, they’d have to show they were accepted to either post-secondary school, a job training program, the military or hired for a job. Now, students can get waivers for passing state tests if they have earned a C average in that subject, secured teacher and principal recommendations and met several other criteria.

In addition to career exploration, the draft recommends that students would also have to — regardless of pathway — demonstrate they have certain “employability skills” such as the ability to communicate, work with others and be punctual. To do that, students would either need 20 hours of community service or “civic engagement experience,” be a leader in a school activity, complete an internship or apprenticeship, earn a “work ethic certificate” from the state, or work at an after-school job.

The panel is set to meet twice more before offering final recommendations to the state board in December.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.

Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.

The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.

Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.

“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.

As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.

Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.

“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.

Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.

In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.

“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”

Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.

Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.

Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.

No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)

Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.

The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.

Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.

“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”

graduation rules

Indiana’s new high school graduation rules were widely opposed by parents and educators. The state board approved them anyway.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
When asked if they opposed the graduation pathways plan, many superintendents at Wednesday's state board meeting stood.

Indiana education officials approved a controversial plan for additional high school graduation requirements on Wednesday, despite nearly six hours of intense objections from about 60 teachers, parents and school leaders.

On Twitter, Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said she was disappointed that the Indiana State Board of Education ultimately supported the measure.

“Following hours of public comments and hundreds of emails from parents, teachers, counselors and school administrators asking members to slow down and figure out the many unknowns — their voices were ignored,” Meredith said.

The committee’s final recommendations were approved 7 to 4, with board members Maryanne McMahon, Cari Whicker, Steve Yager, and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick voting no. McCormick did not make herself available for comment after the vote.

Whicker, the state board’s vice chairwoman and principal of Southern Wells Elementary School, said if the board expects educators across the state to go along with this new plan — which they will soon have to carry out in their schools — board members must listen to their concerns.

“Once we put this into place, these people are going to own it, and these people are going to need to implement it,” Whicker said, referring to educators. “If we need their buy-in, we’re going to need to give them time … we need to listen.”

Whicker’s sentiments were shared by dozens of educators and parents who spoke to the state board on Tuesday and Wednesday. A minority of speakers supported the plan, a number that included representatives from major state universities, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Manufacturers Association, the Commission for Higher Education, and a few K-12 educators.

Alicia Kielmovitch, state Board of Education policy and legislative director, said the pathways are necessary because current Indiana employers say they can’t find qualified job candidates. Higher education officials have reported that about 14 percent of students at public colleges in 2015 didn’t have requisite math and English skills — though that number has decreased from 31 percent in 2011.

“The high school diploma is no longer the finish line,” Kielmovitch said. “Not all students are prepared for the rigors of higher education when they arrive.”

Work on the “graduation pathways” plan was started by a state committee earlier this summer. The goal was to create a system that would ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the resulting recommendations are complex and seem to have much overlap with existing Indiana diplomas.

Under the plan, students need to meet diploma requirements and also, in most cases, satisfy additional criteria. Those could be exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

Read: 6 things to know about Indiana’s new high school graduation rules

Critics said the pathways could be out of reach for students who struggle academically or those with disabilities. The system could also add a lot of work for already overworked school counselors. Many educators were also concerned that the plan included no details about sources of funding or how much carrying out the pathways plan might cost.

The Indiana General Assembly passed a bill last year that charged the state board with creating a committee to develop a pathways system. The proposal likely will not need the approval of lawmakers when they convene in January.

However, lawmakers will have to change the effective date from 2018-19 to 2019-2020 — meaning the pathways plan would influence today’s seventh-graders when they start high school rather than today’s eighth-graders.

Lawmakers would also have to decide whether to accept the committee’s suggestion to use a college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, as the state’s high school test, replacing the current ISTEP 10, and under the new ILEARN plan, end-of-course exams in math, English and science.

Education officials said the graduation pathways proposal would require them to amend the plan Indiana recently submitted to the federal government outlining how it plans to comply with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

The graduation pathways plan would require students to complete at least one option from each of the following three buckets:

Potential Indiana graduation pathways

Pathway requirements Pathway options
High school diploma Meet high school diploma requirements
Show employability skills (complete at least one of the options through locally developed programs) — Project-based learning experience
— Service-based learning experience
— Work-based learning experience
Show postsecondary readiness (complete at least one of the options) — Meet all requirements of an Indiana Academic or Technical Honors Diploma
— Meet the “college-ready benchmarks” for the ACT or SAT
— Earn a score of 31 or higher on the ASVAB
— Earn a state- and industry-recognized credential or certification
— Complete a state-, federal- or industry-recognized apprenticeship
— Earn a C average or better in at least 6 high school credits in a career and technical education sequence
— Earn a C average or better in three AP, IB, CLEP, Cambridge International or dual credit courses.
— Complete requirements of a locally created pathway that is approved by the state board

Find all of Chalkbeat’s graduation pathways coverage here.