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.

Community voices

A day before vote, parents and educators passionately object to new high school graduation plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board's graduation pathways work session was packed Tuesday.

One day before Indiana education officials are set to vote on a plan that would overhaul the state’s high school graduation requirements, many educators and parents from across the state spoke out strongly against it.

The “graduation pathways” plan has attracted concerns from principals and district leaders since a state committee began developing it in August. 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 many don’t see how they differ from the state’s existing diploma structure or serve students with learning challenges.

Under the plan, not only would students need to meet diploma requirements, but they would also have to satisfy additional criteria in most cases, which could be an exam, completing a certain number of advanced courses or gaining credit for internships.

Read: 6 things to know before Indiana officials vote on new high school graduation rules

A vote is expected on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Indiana State Board of Education held a work session to review the final proposal. During an hour of public comment, a couple dozen people spoke, all but one — Ivy Tech Community College President Sue Ellsperman — voicing disapproval for the plan.

Parents, principals, teachers, superintendents and education advocates who spoke relayed a number of issues they had with the plan. Their comments, as well as more than 300 other emails the Indiana Department of Education received on the pathways, boiled down to five main areas of concern: cost, how schools would track the pathways, how the pathways would work for students with special needs, how the pathways committee would address diploma changes, and what options were available for students who weren’t planning to attend college.

Here’s a collection of comments from Tuesday’s meeting. The state board will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday, when there will be more time for public comment before an expected vote.

Shara Swift, a parent from Fort Wayne. Swift said her son, who has learning disabilities, is already working hard to achieve current diploma requirements. She worries the vague, test-focused pathways plan is one more burden for her family.

“He is progressing and he is succeeding, but it takes a tireless amount of effort on his part and on the part of us as a family,” she said.

“Further testing and nebulous and undefined requirements will only set him up for failure,” she said. “In my view, I can discern no clear pathways for students who struggle like my son.”

Randy Harris, Huntington County superintendent. Harris echoed Swift’s concerns about students with special needs, and brought up a frequent criticism of the pathways: The state already has four diplomas with detailed requirements.

“I am really concerned … about the students with (Individualized Education Plans), those students who give everything they have every day to climb the steps that we put in front of them to get that high school diploma.

“If they don’t get that high school diploma, I don’t know what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. The employers won’t even talk to them without that diploma. We are punishing them for all those high efforts that they give with the maximum of their ability.

“We have one pathway already, called a high school diploma.”

Brian Knight, principal at Southport High School in Perry Township. Knight, like many of Tuesday’s speakers, called for more attention to be placed on how pathways would play out for special education students. While the pathways committee heard many comments during their meetings about students with special needs, little actual discussion was had on ways to make pathways work for them.

“I struggle to figure out which pathway meets the needs of the students who need us the most.”

Jennifer Ledger, a parent from Fort Wayne. Ledger’s son has a chronic illness that results in  learning problems requiring him to take extra classes. She said she can’t see how he would even have time for more graduation requirements. Under the proposed plan, he wouldn’t be able to graduate, she said.

“He is more than a piece of paper that says certificate of attendance … Can you honestly look him in the eye and say, ‘You did not graduate from high school”?

“Under your pathway recommendations,” she said,  “I wouldn’t be a graduate from high school.”

Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne Schools superintendent. Robinson summed up most of the comments succinctly: Wait. Just about every speaker asked the state board to delay their vote  until more information was available.

“I’m amazed that we can agree on one thing,” she said. “Everybody is telling you the same thing. I want to echo: Pause. I don’t think anybody today told you to throw everything away. We all want rigor.”

Find all of Chalkbeat’s graduation pathways coverage here.

 

explainer

6 things to know before Indiana officials vote on new high school graduation rules

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

It’s about to get a lot more complicated for Indiana high schoolers to graduate — assuming a proposal is approved next week.

The plan for creating a system of “graduation pathways” has seen several twists and turns since lawmakers approved the idea last spring. Since then, a state committee has met for dozens of hours to try to figure out the answer to one key question: What skills do students need to be ready for life after high school?

Is it passing a test? Multiple tests? Showing you can get to a job on time? Completing an apprenticeship? All of these things? Unsurprisingly, no one quite agrees on the answer.

The committee’s final recommendations will head to the Indiana State Board of Education next week, where the goal is to approve them so lawmakers can then incorporate the plans into state law when the session begins in January. But already, many educators and some policymakers have argued the process is happening way too fast.

For one thing, critics say the pathways are already too similar to existing diplomas and too complicated — both for schools to track and parents and students to understand. Because overworked school counselors would end up shouldering much of the tracking, school leaders are hesitant to add more to their plates.

There’s still time to let the state board know what you think — they are having a work session to discuss the plans on Tuesday, and their Wednesday meeting includes time for public comment.

In the meantime, we’re going to break down the plan for you and answer some key questions.

What are “graduation pathways”? Doesn’t Indiana already have four diplomas?

Indiana’s graduation requirements say students must meet the criteria of one of four diplomas (General, Core 40, Honors, Technical Honors) as well as pass a graduation exam — in this case, the 10th-grade ISTEP test. A couple years ago, the requirement was end-of-course exams in sophomore English and Algebra I.

The pathways would take this idea a step further and lay groundwork earlier for what students plan to do post-high school.

Not only would students need to meet diploma requirements, but they would also have to satisfy additional criteria in most cases, which could be an exam, completing a certain number of advanced courses or gaining credit for internships.

Which students would be affected by the new pathways?

The new graduation pathways system would go into effect for today’s seventh-graders, who start high school in 2019-20 and graduate in 2022-23.

Does that mean high school students no longer need to take ISTEP?

Not exactly. While passing ISTEP would no longer be a roadblock to graduation, it’s still required by the federal government that high school students take state tests each year. That test is ISTEP through next year. After that, it could be end-of-course exams within the new ILEARN testing system or, as the pathways committee is proposing, a college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT. If the state board goes with the college entrance exam, lawmakers would need to address that in state law next year.

Note: Current eighth-graders and high school students will still need to pass ISTEP to graduate from high school, and wouldn’t use the pathways unless their school decided to make it available sooner. It’s not clear how it would work if schools opt-in early.

Why do we need the pathways at all?

Over the past several years, “college and career readiness” has been the tagline at the forefront of U.S. education policy. That’s partially tied to efforts across the country to create new, more rigorous academic standards (remember Common Core?). If the bar was raised, the thinking went, students would eventually be more prepared for demand in the workforce and higher education — both sectors that had reported many students were coming to them without the necessary reading, math and critical-thinking skills to be successful.

In Indiana, the “career” part of that phrase has been especially prominent. Indiana’s most recent executives — Vice President Mike Pence and Gov. Eric Holcomb — have both spearheaded initiatives that aim to give students more opportunities for workforce training in high school.

The graduation pathways were born out of those efforts.

OK, break it down — what are the different pathways and what will students need to do?

Students would have 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

What about diplomas?

The committee is planning to continue conversations about revamping high school diplomas, which were a big point of frustration for educators who came to share their views on the pathways — topics they felt were inextricably linked.

Indiana officials recently learned that the federal government has decided to no longer count the state’s less rigorous General Diploma in graduation rate calculations. The move stems from a provision in new federal law that says the only diploma that can count toward a state’s graduation rate is the one that most students earn — in Indiana, that’s the Core 40. The change will cause graduation rates to drop for many high schools and raises concerns from parents whose children rely on the General Diploma because they struggle academically or have special needs.

Although the state education department has decided to seek a waiver from the federal government to postpone that change, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick admitted it’s pretty unlikely it will be granted.