In the wake of a wildly unpopular decision to change Indiana’s high school graduation rules, state officials must grapple with how to actually implement the plan — and students with disabilities could face more challenges following those rules than their peers.
Called graduation pathways, the goal was to ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the recommendations are complex. The system seems to overlap with existing Indiana diploma requirements and also requires additional criteria such as exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.
But there are no guidelines around, for example, what kinds of internships or community service programs would count for graduation, what kinds of supports and accommodations would be in place for students with disabilities or how the pathways would function alongside a student’s needs for special services and therapies.
The potential for these challenges was not lost on the dozens of parents and educators who tried to convince state officials last week to rethink the plan. Most of the people who commented publicly and many who sent emails to the state education department mentioned concerns about students with special needs being able to meet the new demands.
Stacey Brewer, a principal in Yorktown, talked about her own child, a 6-year-old with autism, when she addressed the Indiana State Board of Education.
“There is a very real chance that my child with autism will never be able to accomplish” parts of the graduation pathways plan that go beyond what’s required by the state’s general diploma, Brewer said. The state is “not weighing out the disastrous impact” the plan would have on students.
As she finished her passionate testimony, she walked back to her seat to energetic applause from the packed auditorium. Many with similar stories and sentiments spoke after her.
J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents said before Indiana can create graduation pathways, it needs to figure out what’s happening with its diplomas — a related issue that has vexed parents and educators ever since the federal government announced it would no longer count Indiana’s general diploma in the graduation rate the state reports. The move could exclude about 12 percent of Hoosier high schoolers from being considered graduates.
Indiana has four diplomas: The standard Core 40 diploma, a general diploma with fewer requirements, and two honors diplomas, one for academics and another for career and technical education. Most students in the state earn a Core 40.
“Don’t we need to fix the diploma statute to better serve all Indiana students before we embark on a new, untested direction for our graduates?” Coopman said.
Not all of the feedback was negative. Mary Roberson, a superintendent in Perry County, said she supported the graduation pathways plan overall, and that her district was already having students with disabilities pursue internships, where they’ve been successful.
In a newsletter sent out last week, Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education, said policymakers and educators need to remember that all students with disabilities are not the same and have different needs and abilities. Some might struggle to meet the pathways requirements, but others might not.
“It is my hope that as other debates occur during this legislative session, the one-size-fits-all disability myth continues to be debunked,” Wright said in the newsletter. “Yes, definitely, students with disabilities need to be considered in any public policy change, but the uniqueness of each student’s capabilities should not be lost in the debate.”
Only about 17 percent of students with disabilities don’t earn a high school diploma, and almost half earn the state’s standard Core 40 diploma or an honors diploma.
Conversations about pathways, both as they relate to special education and to a variety of other topics, are just getting started. The pathways committee said it would continue to meet to address whether Indiana should create a single statewide diploma and how graduation waivers work in the new system.
Indiana law allows for a graduation waiver if students fail to meet pathway requirements, but the waivers are controversial, and schools are sometimes hesitant to award them. Supporters say they give opportunities to students who might face specific challenges, but critics believe the waivers give students a free pass and don’t ensure they leave high school with adequate skills.
No additional committee meetings have been scheduled at this time.
Students with significant cognitive disabilities — generally about 1 percent of students across the state — wouldn’t be affected by the pathways plan. They typically don’t earn high school diplomas, instead they receive a certificate of completion, a credential that until recently showed employers or educators little else besides that a student physically attended school. (It has since been expanded and updated to include more course suggestions and academic structure.)
Last week wasn’t the first time special education advocates came out in full force to challenge state officials on policy that could be detrimental to students with disabilities. Several diploma-related topics have garnered considerable attention, such as when the state attempted to overhaul diplomas in 2015.
The next year, when lawmakers passed legislation to ensure all schools offered students a chance to earn any state diplomas, educators, parents and other community advocates were there testifying to lawmakers, too. And as recently as last year, when an early version of a bill would have killed the general diploma, the language was amended out after pressure from the special education community.
Often, these graduation policy changes are sparked by a call for students to meet higher standards demanded either by employers or higher education. But Kim Dodson, executive director for the Arc of Indiana, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said focusing on raising the academic bar distracts from the very real problems policies like the current graduation pathways plan could present to students with special needs.
“Most of the time, when students fall short of their expectations, it’s not because the bar wasn’t set high enough,” Dodson said. “It’s because they didn’t have the resources and accommodations they needed to be fully successful.”