A panel of unelected officials is making significant changes in what it takes to graduate from high school in Indiana. The process, initiated by the legislature six months ago, could wrap up in December. Yet it is getting little public attention.
If recommendations from the Graduation Pathways Panel are approved by the State Board of Education, no longer will students be able to earn a diploma by completing the required high-school credits and passing “end-of-course assessments” for algebra and 10th-grade English.
They will still have to earn the credits. But in place of tests, they will have to show they are “college and career ready” and have chalked up “applied learning experiences.” The former can include receiving a respectable score on the SAT or ACT test, completing industry apprenticeships or certifications, or earning advanced-placement credits. The latter can be after-school jobs, service-learning or project-based learning.
The new rules would take effect for students who are high-school freshmen in 2018-19.
The 14-member Graduation Pathways Panel has met from late summer through the fall. The schedule calls for it to finalize its recommendations Nov. 7. Then the State Board of Education could approve the pathways in December.
The idea is to create new options for earning a high school diploma and make the requirements more relevant to life after graduation, especially for students who won’t attend a four-year college. Those are laudable goals, but some educators aren’t persuaded the panel is on track.
Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said his group welcomes more flexibility but thinks the panel is closing some doors while it opens others. He said students who earn required credits and pass end-of-course assessments should still get a diploma; they should be exempt from career readiness and applied-learning requirements.
“We feel that including the end-of-course assessments as a pathway should be an option,” Bess said. “Then these other pathways should be established to allow conversations about what happens next, were a student not to pass the test.”
Here are a few reasons to be concerned about what’s happening:
The panel. The group is heavily weighted toward business representatives and career and technical education professionals and light on people who work in public schools that serve that vast majority of Indiana students.
The chairman is Byron Ernest, a state board of education member and head of school for Hoosier Academy, a for-profit, online charter school that was finally closed this fall by its board after six consecutive years of F grades from the state.
Other members include two additional state board members, two Republican legislators, representatives of the Indiana Department of Workforce Development and the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, and a lobbyist for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Initially, the only K-12 educators on the panel were Ernest and B.J. Watts, both state board members. After objections, the panel was expanded. Added were the head of the state private-school association, a charter school counselor, a career education director, a parent who teaches study skills at Vincennes University and a high-school science teacher. Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick also serves on the panel.
The cost. McCormick and others have argued that Indiana has an ethical and possibly a legal obligation to provide students with the opportunities they need to graduate.
For example, if a student opts for the pathway of earning a high score on the SAT or ACT exam, the state or the school should pay for those tests. It should pay fees for industry certifications and apprenticeships and for Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual-credit courses that are part of other pathways. Schools that don’t provide enough options should add teachers and expand their offerings – at a cost to the district or the state.
Rep. Tim Brown, who chairs the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, has said the pool of funding for education won’t expand as part of the pathways process. Does that mean funding would be cut for other school programs?
The process. Listen to some of the panel’s discussions, and it’s obvious that the process is built on the idea of a “skills gap” in which high-school graduates aren’t qualified for jobs. Yet there’s evidence the skills gap is a myth. It shouldn’t be accepted as a given.
Also, only recently have news media, including Chalkbeat Indiana and the Indianapolis Star, started paying attention to graduation pathways. It’s a safe bet the vast majority of Hoosiers, including most parents and even many educators, have no idea what’s going on.
The real issue is that Indiana is about to make real changes in its high-school graduation requirements – changes that will affect all high-school students for years to come – and almost no one is watching.