Waivers from Indiana graduation requirements are declining. Educators explain how they did it.

Seven high school students dressed in blue caps and gowns stand for their graduation.
The use of waivers that exempt students from certain graduation requirements has declined in Indiana recently. Some districts credit an early embrace of the state's "graduation pathways" framework. (Ariel Skelley / Getty Images)

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When Lauren Franklin first took over as principal of Crispus Attucks High School, her mentor gave her some important advice: “The principal has to own graduation.”

She’s used that advice to try to increase the school’s graduation rate while granting few exemptions to students who don’t meet certain state diploma requirements. These waivers give students an exemption from requirements linked to postsecondary pathways for college or career and can be a lifeline for students in certain circumstances. But some of Franklin’s efforts revolve around the amount of work that getting a waiver can involve, compared to forging ahead without one.

“If we’re going to work that hard to get to a waiver, we just need to work that much harder to get them graduated without a waiver,” she said.

In the Class of 2023, the number of Crispus Attucks students who got waivers dropped to just two out of 246 graduates. That decline from the previous year matches a trend statewide, where the share of students using waivers dropped from 7% to 4.5% for the last two graduating classes. In Marion County, the share of students using waivers also fell from 2022 to 2023 in 10 out of 11 school districts. Their decline coincides with efforts by state lawmakers to curb the use of waivers, and make it more transparent when schools do grant them.

The “graduation pathways” framework — made optional for graduates starting in the Class of 2018 but mandatory starting with the Class of 2023 — lets students choose a certain postsecondary trajectory, such as college or a career. It also requires students to pass a “competency requirement” that can align with one of those goals — including reaching a certain score on the SAT or ACT, or earning a C average in at least two advanced career and technical education courses.

But state law allows students to receive a waiver from these competency requirements if they meet certain requirements. Before the pathways framework, students could also receive waivers from the graduation qualifying exam.

A new law deterring the use of waivers, set to take effect for the Class of 2024, may have played a role in the trend. Yet some Marion County school districts with low waiver rates say it’s a result of a years-long effort to ensure students are actually prepared for whatever comes after graduation.

Indianapolis Public Schools, the county’s largest district, has had among the lowest proportion of graduates with waivers dating back to at least the Class of 2021. In the Class of 2023, roughly 2% of its students received waivers, according to state data. (In the data, the state includes some but not all charter high schools in the district’s Innovation Network of autonomous schools.) Officials credit a philosophy embraced by current and previous administrations to use as few waivers as possible.

IPS is well-positioned to avoid exceeding a state-mandated cap that kicks in for the Class of 2024, when students who graduate with waivers can’t account for more than 9% of the total graduating class in a school’s reported graduation rate. Lawmakers say that rule will improve transparency about graduation rates.

In the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township, officials also attribute a decline in waiver rates to adhering to the pathways set by the state’s new graduation requirements.

“It became very hyper-focused even at the middle school level,” said Brett Crousore, principal at Lawrence North High School. “We started having conversations about the different pathways that students would enter.”

IPS leans into career academies for success

Indiana’s 2018 transition to “graduation pathways” requirements aligned with the overhaul of IPS high schools that same year. The district’s closure of three high schools led to the addition of more specialized career academy programs at its remaining four.

Those changes meant “we had to change up everything and how we were doing it,” Franklin said.

But Franklin also attributes the medley of requirements students must meet to be eligible for a waiver to her school’s low waiver rates.

In order to qualify for a waiver, seniors must have tried to pass at least three competencies. They may also be eligible for a waiver if they transferred from a nonpublic, non-accredited or out-of-state school during their senior year and failed to pass one. In either case, students still must also maintain a C average and also have an attendance rate of 95% in order to qualify.

Instead of trying to meet those qualifications, officials say they’re starting early to make sure students meet standard graduation requirements. Each of the district’s four traditional high schools has a graduation coach who works to ensure students try to complete multiple competency requirements throughout their high school career, said Cara Hachmeister, the district’s graduate services coordinator.

That way, if students fail to achieve one competency — such as earning passing grades in career-technical courses, for example — they can have another one to fall back on.

“We’re not just relying on them to pass a test,” she said. “They have those safety nets built in there starting with their freshman year.”

IPS also mirrors another statewide trend: an increase in non-waiver graduation rates. The district’s graduation rate excluding waivers has increased in each of the last three graduating classes, and reached roughly 79.7% last year, although that’s still among the lowest for Marion County districts.

In Lawrence township, focus on pathways helped reduce waivers

In Lawrence township, officials credit a focus on the new graduation pathway requirements to help reduce waiver usage.

Too many students at Lawrence North High School were dabbling in entry-level classes but not moving on to higher-level courses, said Brett Crousore, the school’s principal. The school instead began to ensure more students were following through with the next course to help them complete their designated pathway, he said. That focus on pathways even started in middle school.

“It felt like a 12-year-old was having to pick a major as they entered into high school, and that’s essentially somewhat what we’re doing,” Crousore said.

The career and technical education pathway is a popular option in the district. At the McKenzie Center for Innovation and Technology, students from both high schools can attend programs in law, health science, hospitality, and more.

The township reduced its use of waivers from 14% of the Class of 2021 to roughly 3% of last year’s graduating class.

Like IPS, Lawrence has increased its non-waiver graduation rate every year since 2021, when 80% of students graduated. The non-waiver graduation rate for the Class of 2023 was 91.7%.

But some Marion County schools and districts use waivers at much higher rates than their peers.

At Ben Davis High School in the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, for example, 36% of graduating students received a waiver, according to the latest state data. The district as a whole has the highest waiver rate of any Marion County district, with roughly one-third of graduates receiving a waiver — about ten times the percentage in Lawrence Township.

State law will increasingly restrict how much waivers can contribute to graduation rates schools and districts share with the public. For the Class of 2025, no more than 6% of graduating seniors in the school’s reported graduation rate can receive waivers. In 2026, that drops further to 3%.

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

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