Reported graduation rates for Indiana schools could dip after change to state law

Graduation caps held up
Graduation rates that Indiana schools share with the public could decline due to a new law that requires schools to limit the proportion of students who graduate with waivers in their reported graduation rate. (Nay Ni Ratn Mak Can Thuk / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Schools across Indiana could see a dip in their reported graduation rates after a change to state law requiring districts to limit the portion of students who graduate with waivers from the calculation. 

Students who graduate with a waiver — an exemption from certain graduation requirements — can account for no more than 9% of the total graduating class in reported graduation rates for the 2023-24 school year. That percentage declines to 6% in 2024-25 and 3% for each year after. 

The changes could have a large effect on publicized graduation rates, which are often used as a measure of success for school leaders and can be a key metric parents use to determine the quality of their child’s education. In Marion County schools, the 84.2% graduation rate for the 2021 student cohort dips to 73.1% when students with waivers are excluded, according to an analysis of state data by the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. 

Beginning with the Class of 2023, students in Indiana must choose from one of several graduation pathways to graduate, and also must pass a competency requirement of some sort. Prior to that class, districts could choose whether to offer the new graduation pathways requirements or offer old graduation requirements, which included passing the old ISTEP state exam.

But state law allows schools to grant graduation waivers to students who try but fail to pass the competency requirement, which can include the SAT, ACT, and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery Test (ASVAB) used for entrance into the military. Those districts that operated under the old graduation requirements could also issue waivers to students who tried but failed to pass the ISTEP test for 10th graders

The change to the law does not restrict the number of waivers districts can grant. Instead, proponents argue, it will add transparency to graduation rates that they said were previously inflated. 

“My hope is that greater transparency into the number of students who are graduating from high school with a high school diploma will lead to productive dialogue between parents, school principals, school superintendents, policymakers and others to improve not only our high school school graduation rate, but the number of students that are entering into postsecondary education,” said Jason Kloth, president and CEO of Ascend Indiana. The waiver recommendation was part of a report Ascend Indiana conducted with Business Equity for Indy.

School leaders argue that waivers are a valuable tool for students facing extenuating circumstances, such as those who transfer into a new school for their junior or senior year. 

“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,” Samantha Goldsmith, principal of the online Hoosier College and Career Academy charter school, previously told us. “And our goal is to help them graduate.”

In Marion County, schools with the highest percentage of waiver graduates for the 2022 student cohort included Ben Davis High School in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, the Phalen Virtual Leadership Academy charter school, and the GEO Next Generation Academy charter school.

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At Ben Davis High School, roughly 31% of the 2022 cohort graduated with waivers, or nearly 37% of the 863 students who graduated, according to state data. If the new law had gone into effect last year, it would have meant the school could only count 77 of its 317 waiver graduates in its 2022 graduation rate. 

The Wayne school district did not respond to a request for comment about the new law’s impact. 

The law, House Enrolled Act 1635, also requires students who use the ASVAB as a competency requirement to submit documentation that demonstrates their intent to enlist in the military. 

That change was also prompted by concerns that too many students are using the test as an easier way to graduate — without actually intending to enroll in the military. Just 2% of Indiana students who took the ASVAB from August 2022 to February 2023 tried to use their score for military consideration, according to data from the Indianapolis Military Entrance Processing Station.

The score required to pass the ASVAB as a graduation requirement is set at 31, which is lower than what some branches of the military require if military candidates do not have a high school diploma. The State Board of Education voted in April to maintain that score. 

Correction, June 6, 2023: A previous version of this story included an incorrect description of the Ascend Indiana group. Ascend Indiana is a separate entity from Business Equity for Indy.

Amelia Pak-Harvey covers Indianapolis and Marion County schools for Chalkbeat Indiana. Contact Amelia at apak-harvey@chalkbeat.org.

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