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Two bills in the legislature aim to discourage the overuse of waivers that exempt high school students from certain graduation requirements, a move that could ultimately bring down graduation rates for Indiana’s districts.
Senate Bill 380 and House Bill 1635 would require schools to leave out a large portion of those students that graduate with a waiver when calculating their graduation rates, a change that supporters say would add more transparency to a metric often used as a measure of a school’s success.
In Indiana, schools can grant waivers to students who try but fail to pass a competency requirement in order to graduate. That can prove helpful for students facing extenuating circumstances, such as those who transfer into a school during their senior year, school leaders said.
HB 1635 also seeks to add a military requirement for students using the military entrance exam — known as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, or ASVAB — in order to graduate.
The legislation comes amid concerns that such waivers can inflate graduation rates, since those rates include students who’ve received a waiver from completing a competency requirement.
GOP Rep. Bob Behning, author of HB 1635 and chair of the House education committee, also voiced concern that many students are using the ASVAB as a relatively easy route to meeting a graduation testing requirement, without intending to enroll in the military.
Only 2% of students statewide who took the ASVAB from August 2022 to February 2023 attempted to use their score for military consideration, according to data from the Indianapolis Military Entrance Processing Station.
Statewide, the percentage of Indiana students graduating with waivers increased from the 2013-14 school year to 2018-19. But those figures gradually decreased in 2020-21 and 2021-22.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can as a state that students are prepared not only for life, but to go into the economic cycle and thrive,” said Sen. Jeff Raatz, a Republican who’s the chair of the Senate education committee and an author of SB 380.
Since the state’s new graduation pathways framework became optional for students in 2018, a higher percentage of students have also been choosing the ASVAB to graduate, according to Indiana Department of Education data. Of all the students who received a diploma in 2021 — regardless of their designated cohort — roughly 19% graduated using the ASVAB as a testing requirement in 2021.
But the measure limiting ASVAB usage has sparked concern from education groups, who argue the test is also used as a career exploration tool as part of the ASVAB Career Exploration Program.
“The goal of the ASVAB CEP is to empower students with tools to explore a variety of careers related to their skills and interests, rather than limit their exploration by telling them what they can or should do,” Nathaniel Grandberry, program manager for the ASVAB CEP in Indiana, argued in a letter to lawmakers.
Bills seek to limit graduation waiver usage
SB 380 requires that students graduating with waivers account for no more than 10% of the total graduating class in the school’s reported graduation rate before July 2027. After June 2027, waiver students could account for no more than 5%.
HB 1635 mandates lower figures, allowing waiver students to be counted in the reported graduation rate if they are no more than 6% of the total graduating cohort before July 2027, and no more than 3% after June 2027.
The exemptions from testing requirements existed before the state adopted its new graduation pathways framework, which became optional beginning in the Class of 2018 and will now be mandatory for the Class of 2023.
State law allows students to choose from one of several graduation pathways, but it does require students to complete a competency requirement. That can mean reaching certain scores on the SAT exam, for example, or graduating with an academic or technical honors diploma that requires 47 credits rather than the baseline of 40.
But the law also allows waivers for students that do not complete such competency requirements in certain situations, including if a student tried and failed three times to do so. Students who transfer from out of state or from certain non-accredited, non-public schools can also receive a waiver if they’ve tried to pass at least one competency requirement.
Students granted waivers must still maintain a C average and have an attendance rate of at least 95%.
Prior to the Class of 2023, students could choose whether to graduate using the new pathways system or whether to do so under the old graduation requirements. Those students could also receive waivers for not passing the statewide 10th grade exam known as the ISTEP.
Marion County schools that gave out the highest percentage of waivers for the graduating 2022 cohort include Achieve Virtual Education Academy in Wayne Township, the GEO Next Generation Academy charter school, and Phalen Virtual Leadership Academy, a virtual charter school launched amid the pandemic, according to preliminary state graduation data.
Traditional high schools within Indianapolis Public Schools, however, graduated relatively few or no students with waivers, according to state data.
But some schools with high waiver rates argue that waivers are helpful for students who transfer into a school late in their high school careers.
Kevin Teasley, founder of GEO Academies, said three of the six waiver students at GEO Next Generation Academy enrolled in the school as seniors. Three others enrolled in the school as juniors in need of credit recovery.
The Class of 2022 was the school’s first graduating class, Teasley noted, but he hopes to lower the proportion of students receiving waivers in future graduating classes.
Samantha Goldsmith, principal of the online Hoosier College and Career Academy charter school that was also among the Marion County schools with the highest waiver rates, said many of the students that graduated with waivers were new to the school.
The school has taken steps to make sure there are fewer waivers moving forward, she noted. But Goldsmith also said there’s a reason those waivers are used.
“When you as a school have a new student who starts in their senior year with you, and … they don’t already have those pathways, it’s certainly a challenge,” Goldsmith said. “And our goal is to help them graduate.”
Wayne Township Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Walters also encouraged lawmakers to explain the intent of their proposals.
“Is their intent to illuminate presumed failings of the public school, or is the intent to reveal where traditionally more marginalized populations continue to navigate inequities in the system as yet another indication of the weight of those inequities?” Walters asked.
Phalen Virtual Leadership Academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Supporters of changing the graduation rate calculation, such as the coalition of groups known as Business Equity for Indy, argue that waiver usage can mislead families about the success of a school district.
Waiver usage has historically been highest among Black and Latino students, according to a Business Equity for Indy report that analyzed waiver rates from 2009-10 to 2018-19. In 2018-19, 22% of Black graduates in Marion County and 18% of Latino graduates used a waiver, compared to 14% of white graduates.
But speaking to the Senate Education and Career Development Committee last week, Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said the new graduation pathways system — which allows students to choose from one of nine competency requirements — should naturally reduce the proportion of students graduating with waivers. (McRoberts also spoke to the committee on behalf of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents.)
Many students use military entrance exam to graduate
Under HB 1635, students who pass the ASVAB test to complete their competency requirement must enlist in the military in order to graduate. If they do not, Behning said, they should choose another graduation pathway.
The intent of the graduation pathways was to make sure students had a path for their next step in life, Behning said. If they don’t intend to go into the military, he said, using the ASVAB as a testing requirement makes no sense.
“It appears that a lot of our schools are using it as a pathway because it’s a very easy benchmark to hit,” he said.
The state’s current ASVAB passing score of 31 is also lower than what students for some branches of the military are expected to achieve if they did not have a high school diploma but had a GED instead, Behning noted. That means the state is accepting a score to graduate from high school that’s lower than what the military accepts from someone who does not, he argued. (Some branches, however, will accept a lower score than 31, Grandberry said.)
Grandberry argued in his letter that the bill would cause many schools to drop the ASVAB Career Exploration Program.
The Indiana School Counselors Association, meanwhile, argued that the high number of students taking the ASVAB is a data problem.
Overworked school counselors may indicate in records that a student passed the ASVAB earlier in their high school careers, completing the graduation testing requirement, the group noted. But those students may later on fulfill other testing requirements, such as the SAT.
“It’s possible we’re checking that box and we’re not always returning back to that box,” said Scott Carr of Catalyst Public Affairs, who testified in the Senate committee on behalf of the group.
Both bills have passed their respective chambers and are awaiting action from the committees in the other chamber.
Correction, June 5, 2023: A previous version of this story included an incorrect description of the way bills in the House and Senate would limit the extent to which students graduating with waivers can factor into schools’ reported graduation rate. The bills limited the percentage of students who could account for a school’s total graduating class and had received waivers.
Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at email@example.com.