Indiana appears to be in the vanguard when it comes to adopting “graduation pathways” that students can follow to earn a high-school diploma. But two states, Colorado and Ohio, have gone farther down this path. What could we learn from their experience?
In Colorado, lawmakers approved legislation in 2007 calling for a redesign of graduation requirements. Ten years later, it’s starting to implement a system in which schools can choose from a menu of options for earning a diploma. The new system takes effect with this year’s ninth-graders.
Colorado developed its graduation guidelines through a process that included nearly 50 stakeholder meetings across the state, in-depth conversations with most school superintendents, working groups with 300-plus representatives and two years of statewide discussion.
Ohio, by contrast, moved quickly to a system in which students could graduate by earning points on high-school end-of-course assessments, getting a “remediation-free” score on the SAT or ACT exam or acquiring industry or workforce credentials. It was supposed to take effect with this year’s seniors.
But the state changed course when officials realized many students weren’t going to meet the requirements, said Ken Baker, executive director of the Ohio Secondary School Administrators Association. For the class of 2018 only, it added pathways that students could use to graduate.
Baker said the lesson from Ohio is not that graduation pathways are a bad idea. It’s that policymakers should take their time, get lots of input, define the terms clearly and proceed with eyes wide open.
“The problem in Ohio was, we introduced these alternative pathways and then we started building the plane as we were flying,” he said.
That sounds a lot like what’s happening in Indiana. While Colorado took 10 years to get its new approach right, we’re trying to get there in a few months – with a lot less input and deliberation.
The Indiana General Assembly approved legislation that created a graduation pathways panel this spring, but few people noticed. The panel began meeting in August and approved its recommendations this month. The State Board of Education could approve them Dec. 6. It’s a safe bet that parents of today’s seventh-graders, the first students who will be affected, don’t have a clue this is going on.
Under the panel’s recommendations, students would have to demonstrate “postsecondary-ready competencies” through academic achievements or career-focused pathways like apprenticeships, industry certificates and advanced technical courses. They would have to show “employability skills” via jobs, community service or school projects.
Jennifer Zinth, director of high school and STEM for the Education Commission of the States, said Indiana’s embrace of alternative pathways fits within a national picture in which career and technical education is getting increased emphasis.
“I think there’s lot of fear among state policymakers that students will finish high school and have no sense what they want to do,” she said. “There’s a lot of discussion that students don’t have skills they need, that jobs are going unfilled.”
Leaving aside whether schools should be training workers for industry, there’s a real issue here of shifting expectations. As a recent Brookings Institution report points out, career and technical education has been in decline because of a demand for rigor in the high-school curriculum. Forced to complete at least 40 academic credits, students don’t have room in their schedules for career courses.
Also, it wasn’t long ago that policymakers were encouraging schools to have all their students aim for a four-year college degree. Now it has become almost a cliché that college isn’t for everyone – but that, at the same time, most future jobs will require some postsecondary education.
“There’s a pendulum that tends to swing between general preparation for college and careers and more specific preparation,” Zinth said. “And more specific preparation is where it is now.”
Indiana’s move to graduation pathways, she said, seems to be part of a national trend in which policymakers are thinking of a high-school diploma as a transition, not a goal.
“It’s also a wait-and-see moment” she said. “It’s relatively new. We’ll see how it plays out.”