Is a high school equivalency good enough to graduate? Some Indiana districts say it should be.

Educators in two Marion County districts are pushing lawmakers to let schools count as graduates certain students now labeled as dropouts. But some experts say that move would lower the bar for Indiana students.

Should lawmakers approve the measure, graduation counts in several districts would include students who pass a high school equivalency exam and take steps toward career training.

The House education committee Wednesday is expected to discuss the proposal — a three-year pilot spanning four districts, including Washington and Warren Township schools. The program would add a new graduation option for qualifying students and no longer hold schools accountable for those students’ failure to earn a traditional diploma.

It would target high schoolers who are entering their senior year with less than half of the credits needed to graduate. Supporters say that it’s better for students to leave with a high school equivalency, Indiana’s version of the GED, and a workforce credential than to walk away empty-handed.

“We’re trying to find that connection where we can reach these students,” said Lara Pastore, assistant supervisor of Washington Township Adult Education. “Everybody knows if a student leaves high school without any credential, their future is very very bleak.”

Pastore, who brought the idea to lawmakers, said only about a quarter of those who don’t receive a high school diploma later return to school. And when students try to enroll in adult education after dropping out, they no longer get crucial wrap-around services, such as transportation and lunch.

But the idea that schools would get credit for graduating a student who didn’t earn a diploma is cause for concern, said Russell Rumberger, a professor emeritus at the University of California – Santa Barbara, and who directs the California Dropout Research Project.

“You want kids to be prepared for future work and college when they come out of high school,” Rumberger said. “If you dumb down the requirements you’re not really helping the students.”

Rumberger rebuked the idea that passing a high school equivalency exam offers the same value as graduating high school, pointing to research that links a diploma to more job opportunities and higher annual earnings. Diploma-earners made $177 more a week in 2018 than those who didn’t graduate high school, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The program also raised concerns about whether schools would quietly track students toward earning their equivalency rather than provide interventions earlier in high school.

“If that’s a path that’s seen as legitimate, then there may be less incentive to really support students so they are graduating and getting a diploma,” said Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

But Pastore said this program is meant to be an intervention, not a pathway. She sees this as a way to keep students from dropping out, even if they are unlikely to earn a traditional diploma. And she pointed to a recent Chalkbeat investigation that raised concerns over the number of students marked as “home-schoolers,” which experts say could be disguising students who are dropping out.

As for how students have been allowed to fall this far behind, administrators in both Washington and Warren Township pointed to some factors beyond schools’ control, such as homelessness, sickness, and moving from school to school. This year 45 students at Warren Central High School would have qualified for the program, had the pilot been in place. Of those, eight transferred to the school this year.

“At the end of the day, it is still going to be the student and their family that is struggling because of that breakdown, whether you want to pin it on high schools or someone else,” Pastore said. “I think if we know these students are there, we know we can give them this service and we know we can change their lives, I think that’s the real failure, to not do.”

The Indiana Department of Education during recent testimony applauded the schools for “innovating,” but asked lawmakers not to tie high school equivalency to schools’ graduation rates. John Keller, an education department representative, pointed out that high school equivalency exams are not counted in the federal graduation rate. He also suggested capping the number of eligible students at 5% of the senior class, which lawmakers later added.

Warren Township Superintendent Timothy Hanson said he would be interested in the program whether or not it impacted the graduation rate. But he argued that schools should receive some benefit for putting resources into the program. There is no state money tied to the pilot, meaning schools and adult education programs would need to allocate money from their own budgets or secure third-party funding to cover costs.

Lawmakers showed early support for the pilot program. The measure passed unanimously through the Senate earlier this month.

“When it was presented to me, I Ioved the program as a safety net for really those who have no chance at graduating,” said bill author Sen. Jeff Raatz, a Republican who chairs the Senate education committee.