Parents and educators have pushed back for years against attempts to eliminate Indiana’s general high-school diploma, arguing it’s an important option for students who would struggle to earn the more rigorous Core 40 or academic honors diplomas.
Now the federal government has dealt their efforts a blow. Under guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, Indiana will no longer be able to include students who earn the general diploma in calculating school graduation rates.
The change will have an impact on high-school grades, which are partially based on graduation rates. Over 8,600 students earned the general diploma in 2015. That’s 12 percent of high-school graduates.
And for students who struggle to earn the general diploma and likely wouldn’t complete a more rigorous course of study, the change seems to send a message that their efforts aren’t good enough. About 30 percent of students who earn a general diploma are special-needs students.
“The value of the general diploma will be diminished for students who have worked very hard to receive that,” said Sandi Cole, director of the Center on Education and Lifelong Learning at Indiana University and a former high-school special education teacher and department chair.
Indiana schools will still offer the general diploma, and students who earn it can count themselves as high-school graduates. But if the diploma doesn’t figure into accountability, will schools put as much effort into making sure all students earn at least that degree?
As Cole pointed out, the 2001 No Child Left Behind law at least had the virtue of holding schools accountable for the learning of subgroups of students, including special-needs students.
“When kids count, they are attended to,” she said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick told State Impact Indiana that Indiana officials were blindsided by the change, which came in the form of guidance for complying with the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal education law. They pushed back, but to no avail.
Ironically, the Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to give states more flexibility than No Child Left Behind. This is an example where it hasn’t.
There has long been an effort, in Indiana and across the nation, to create more rigorous requirements for a high-school diploma. And it certainly makes sense to have high standards and expectations for all students – but only if don’t set an inflexibly high bar that many students can’t get over.
Indiana created the Core 40 diploma in the 1990s with the idea that it should be the standard for admission to public universities. Some colleges expected more than that, and the state added the academic honors diploma, letting graduates further distinguish themselves.
A decade later, lawmakers decided to make Core 40 the default state diploma. But parents can opt to have their children earn the general diploma if the students will benefit from doing so.
Why do the feds care how Indiana calculates its graduation rate? The surface answer is that the new federal education law calls for uniform calculation of graduate rates across the states. But that seems unlikely to happen, because state graduation requirements are anything but uniform.
According to data from the Education Commission of the States, state graduation requirements vary from 26 to 50 high-school semester credits. Some states, like Massachusetts and Colorado, leave it to local school districts to set their requirements. Indiana, which requires 40 credits for Core 40 and 47 credits for its honors diplomas, is near the middle.
Indiana’s general diploma also requires 40 semester credits, just not as much math, science and social studies as Core 40. On paper, the Indiana general diploma looks more demanding than the standard diploma offered in several states. If that’s the case, the new accountability rules will make Indiana’s students and schools look a lot less successful than they are.