Graduation changes could be approved this week

Indiana educators have begun pushing back against a plan to dramatically reconfigure the state’s high-school diploma requirements. Will it matter? We could know this week.

The State Board of Education will meet Tuesday and Wednesday to consider “graduation pathways” that students follow to earn a diploma. The proposal comes from the Graduation Pathways Panel, created by 2017 legislation, which met nine times from August until November.

The panel’s recommendations would require students to not only complete high-school credit requirements but to demonstrate “postsecondary-ready competencies” and “employability skills” by clearing a set of barriers, such as passing tests, earning college credits or completing internships.

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Why the rush on graduation pathways?

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.

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Graduation pathways fast-tracked

You’ve heard of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Welcome to Indiana, where the children need to be average or above to earn a high-school diploma.

That may be where we’re heading with the recommendations approved Tuesday by the Graduation Pathways Panel and sent to the State Board of Education for consideration. The board could approve the recommendations – a significant change in what it takes to earn a diploma – on Dec. 6.

Panel members say their plan will expand access by creating more pathways that students can follow to graduate. What they don’t say is that each pathway includes barriers that could prevent some students from reaching the goal.

  • Students can qualify via the SAT or ACT exam, but only if their scores meet “college-ready benchmarks,” nearly the average for college-bound test takers.
  • They can qualify by getting a passing score on a military enlistment test, but today’s all-volunteer military doesn’t admit just anyone.
  • They can qualify by passing at least three dual-credit, Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, but they need at least a C grade.

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Diploma rule a setback for Indiana schools, students

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? Continue reading