Plan to require more math, offer fewer diploma options raises concerns

With Indiana poised to move forward to adopt new definitions for how to qualify for its high school diplomas, parents and educators are still concerned about what it could mean for kids with special needs and other learning barriers.

Jason Bearce, with the Commission on Higher Education, said upping requirements is intended, in part, satisfy the needs of employers seeking workers who have more math skills. In each new diploma option, two to four more credits of math are required, which could equal one or two more years of study. Many states are moving toward diplomas that require more credits and more challenging coursework, Bearce said.

In 2014 Bearce said state legislators asked the Indiana Career Council to recommend how to improve the state’s diplomas. Today’s special meeting of the Indiana State Board of Education was to consider recommendations, which include offering just three diploma types instead of four while adding new required coursework.

“We’re not really talking about monstrous change in terms of what we expect from students,” Bearce said. “Colleges and employers for the most part speak with fairly consistent voice on this.”

Under the plan, there would be a “college and career ready” diploma, an “honors” diploma or a “workforce ready diploma” starting for kids who are high school freshmen in 2018. Currently there are four diploma options: General, Core 40, Core 40 honors and career and technical honors diplomas.

“The wide range of diploma options now is confusing,” Bearce said. “It’s confusing to students, it’s confusing to parents and sometimes, it even makes counselor’s jobs more difficult. A lot of this is about simplifying the process.”

But parents and educators still think the new options just don’t fit for some students. Beatriz Joyce, the mother of a kindergartner who has Down syndrome, said she wants her daughter to have every opportunity in her education — and that includes the chance to earn a high school diploma. Dropping the general diploma could make that much more difficult.

“Like everyone else she has her strengths and weakness, and we have high expectations for her,” Joyce told the board. “She might not be able to become a doctor or teacher, but I will be happy to know that at the very least she will be able to participate and get a high school diploma.”

Indiana state law today doesn’t require all school districts to offer all four diploma options. Some districts only offer the Core 40 diploma, suggested for students who want to go on to four-year colleges or professional fields, as the least-demanding option.

Ritz said a recent survey reported that half of Indiana schools do not offer a general diploma.

Tammy Hurm with the Indiana Council of Administrators of Special Education said the group this year will advocate to the legislature that all schools should offer all diplomas. Some schools today have stopped offering the general diploma, intended for students who will go straight into the workforce, to the frustration of parents like Joyce.

Students who would prefer to earn a general diploma but attend schools that don’t offer it can be stuck finishing school but not earning a diploma. Instead, some earn a just certificate of completion. That can leave them unqualified for future jobs that expect evidence of academic accomplishments.

“If a student has a certificate of completion and is asked a question on job application, ‘do you have a high school diploma?’ can that student answer yes?” board member Vince Bertram asked.

“At this point, no,” said Jenny Berry, a representative from the Indiana Department of Education.

Mike McDivitt, principal at Oak Hill High School, said he doesn’t believe another year of required math makes a diploma more “rigorous,” but creates a hardship for schools that have to provide even more classes without any extra state aid to help pay for those costs, and for students who might already be getting extra help for math.

“Almost all the students at Oak Hill High School that earn a general diploma have already completed three years of high school math,” McDivitt said. “Many enter high school underprepared in Algebra 1, and many take two years to complete that.”

But the majority of students with special needs do graduate with Core 40 diplomas, Bearce said, and he doesn’t believe the new diplomas have to be a barrier to them.

Berry said the diploma committee is looking into how the certificate of completion can be strengthened so students who earn it qualify for a wider range of jobs.

“We want to push Indiana in the right direction, but we don’t want to create something untenable in terms of implementation,” Bearce said.

The diploma committee is scheduled to meet again Friday, Ritz said, and diplomas must be approved by the state board by Dec. 1.