News that Indiana won’t be able to count its general diploma when calculating high-school graduation rates came as a blow to many parents and educators. But the change will hit some schools much harder than others. And not necessarily the ones you might expect.
Some schools appear to have moved away from awarding the general diploma, and nearly all their graduates earn the Core 40 or honors diploma, which will count toward the graduation rate. But others continued to rely on the general diploma, awarding it to more than a third of their graduates. Those schools would see a big drop in their graduation rates under the change the U.S. Department of Education is pushing Indiana to adopt.
And high-school graduation rate is expected to be an important factor in the new school accountability system that Indiana will develop to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.
In Brown County High School, for example, 42 percent of 2016 graduates earned the general diploma, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education. If those students didn’t count, the school’s graduation rate would have been only 57 percent. Counting those students, its rate was nearly perfect.
Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, said the general diploma is a suitable goal for many students. Some 18 percent of Brown County’s students qualify for special education and are more likely to earn the general diploma. Also, an increasing number of students are focused on career and workforce skills – something the state has encouraged – or plan to enter the military. Core 40 or honors diplomas aren’t required for those paths.
“At the end of the day, we would rather have a student earn a general diploma than drop out,” Hammack said. “The general diploma allows them to have success at Ivy Tech, military enlistment, certification programs and manufacturing jobs in the area.”
Here is a link to a spreadsheet showing the rate of general diplomas awarded by Indiana high schools, arranged both from highest to lowest and in alphabetical order by county.
Schools with the highest rates of general diplomas include alternative schools where you’d expect the rates to be high. But they also include some small to mid-sized comprehensive high schools, many in rural areas, such as Brown County, Bedford North Lawrence and Jennings County. If general diplomas weren’t counted, those schools would see their graduation rates fall to the 60-to-65 percent range.
Several of the high schools with the lowest rates of general diplomas, on the other hand, are urban; they include high schools in the Fort Wayne, Gary and Indianapolis Public Schools districts.
An argument can be made that students are better off if they pursue the most rigorous high-school curriculum they’re capable of mastering. But if students are using high school to learn career skills and earn workforce credentials, they may not have room in their schedules for the additional math, science and social studies credits required for the Core 40 diploma.
At any rate, schools like Brown County would need several years to change their approach and boost their graduation rate, even if they chose to push more students to the Core 40 or honors track.
Hammack said she’s pleased the Indiana Department of Education is trying to fix the problems caused by the change. But it doesn’t appear the feds will bend on the issue. Indiana will face a challenge to move forward on accountability without punishing schools for doing what was best for their students.