The feds have a new definition for graduation rate, and Indiana’s general diploma doesn’t count

Special education advocates fought for years to make Indiana’s general diploma a viable option for students who need it. Now, the credential is being sidelined again — this time by the federal government.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government. Currently, the state uses its own graduation rate calculation, which has a slightly different make-up. It’s a move that will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because students earning the credential wouldn’t be considered graduates to the feds.

The general diploma is a pared-down option typically earned by students who struggle academically or those with special needs. The state has discouraged schools from relying on the general diploma, but advocates say it offers opportunities to students who otherwise might not be able to earn the more rigorous default option, the Core 40 diploma.

Families in the special education community could be especially concerned about the move to no longer count the general diploma in graduation rates. They have long pushed state officials to make sure all students get counted in accountability metrics and receive credit for what they achieve. To do otherwise, they say, would lower expectations for those kids and make it more likely they’ll be overlooked.

The Indiana Department of Education announced the change to school administrators in an email this morning, explaining that it was required by a fairly new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The state is preparing to submit its plan to comply with the law in a few months.

“Due to requirements in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), graduation rates must be calculated uniformly across all states,” education department spokeswoman Molly Deuberry said in an email. “With this new direction from the United States Department of Education (USED), graduation rates will be calculated using only Core 40, Core 40 with Academic Honors, Core 40 with Technical Honors, and International Baccalaureate diplomas.”

Students can still earn a general diploma, and state legislation passed in 2016 means all schools still must offer it as an option — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA says states can count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or a credential that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

Most Indiana students earn a Core 40 diploma or higher. In 2016, just 12.2 percent of students earned a general diploma. Critics of the general diploma say it’s not rigorous enough for students who want to go on to higher education or most jobs. Currently, all Indiana public four-year universities require at least a Core 40 diploma.

Before the legislature made changes last year, a loophole in state law allowed schools to choose which diploma types they offered. To try to boost student skills, some high schools stopped offering general diplomas. But students and educators said that meant some kids who might have qualified for a general diploma but couldn’t meet the requirements for a Core 40 diploma were left without a credential, blocking them from jobs, college and training programs.

The Indiana State Board of Education also moved to cut the diploma in 2015, which received heavy backlash from parents at the time. Ultimately, the board tabled its discussion and left the diploma intact.

Additionally, Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, included a provision to cut the general diploma based on the new federal guidance in the first draft of House Bill 1384 during this year’s legislative session, but it was amended out early on.