Every Student Succeeds Act

The feds have a new definition for graduation rate, and Indiana’s general diploma doesn’t count

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post

Special education advocates fought for years to make Indiana’s general diploma a viable option for students who need it. Now, the credential is being sidelined again — this time by the federal government.

As early as fall of 2018, the general diploma could cease to count in the graduation rate the state is now required to report to the federal government. Currently, the state uses its own graduation rate calculation, which has a slightly different make-up. It’s a move that will likely cause rates to drop and school A-F grades to take a hit because students earning the credential wouldn’t be considered graduates to the feds.

The general diploma is a pared-down option typically earned by students who struggle academically or those with special needs. The state has discouraged schools from relying on the general diploma, but advocates say it offers opportunities to students who otherwise might not be able to earn the more rigorous default option, the Core 40 diploma.

Families in the special education community could be especially concerned about the move to no longer count the general diploma in graduation rates. They have long pushed state officials to make sure all students get counted in accountability metrics and receive credit for what they achieve. To do otherwise, they say, would lower expectations for those kids and make it more likely they’ll be overlooked.

The Indiana Department of Education announced the change to school administrators in an email this morning, explaining that it was required by a fairly new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The state is preparing to submit its plan to comply with the law in a few months.

“Due to requirements in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), graduation rates must be calculated uniformly across all states,” education department spokeswoman Molly Deuberry said in an email. “With this new direction from the United States Department of Education (USED), graduation rates will be calculated using only Core 40, Core 40 with Academic Honors, Core 40 with Technical Honors, and International Baccalaureate diplomas.”

Students can still earn a general diploma, and state legislation passed in 2016 means all schools still must offer it as an option — it just can’t factor into state accountability grades. ESSA says states can count graduates that earn the diploma that a majority of students get or a credential that is more rigorous, but not one that is less.

Most Indiana students earn a Core 40 diploma or higher. In 2016, just 12.2 percent of students earned a general diploma. Critics of the general diploma say it’s not rigorous enough for students who want to go on to higher education or most jobs. Currently, all Indiana public four-year universities require at least a Core 40 diploma.

Before the legislature made changes last year, a loophole in state law allowed schools to choose which diploma types they offered. To try to boost student skills, some high schools stopped offering general diplomas. But students and educators said that meant some kids who might have qualified for a general diploma but couldn’t meet the requirements for a Core 40 diploma were left without a credential, blocking them from jobs, college and training programs.

The Indiana State Board of Education also moved to cut the diploma in 2015, which received heavy backlash from parents at the time. Ultimately, the board tabled its discussion and left the diploma intact.

Additionally, Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, included a provision to cut the general diploma based on the new federal guidance in the first draft of House Bill 1384 during this year’s legislative session, but it was amended out early on.

ESSA Wrap up

Colorado bows to federal pressure, adopts second school quality system that penalizes schools for testing opt-out

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
State Board of Education members Angelika Schroeder and Steve Durham met with lawmakers to discuss the nation's new education law.

In an effort to keep federal dollars flowing to Colorado classrooms, the State Board of Education voted Wednesday to create two quality systems for the state’s schools — the existing one designed in 2009 by state lawmakers, and a new one that meets federal requirements.

The unusual arrangement amounts to a compromise between the state education department and the U.S. Department of Education.

After Colorado became a national epicenter for the opt-out movement in 2015, the State Board of Education adopted a policy that forbid the state from lowering a school’s quality rating if they missed the 95 percent participation requirement.

That proved to be a sticking point when state officials submitted Colorado’s plan for complying with the nation’s new education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Federal officials sent the plan back, saying the opt-out provision didn’t comply with the new law.

In the compromise, the state will continue to issue state school quality ratings that don’t penalize schools for high opt-out rates.

However, the state will create a separate list of schools based on the federal requirement that students who opt out are counted as not proficient.

Some state board members worried two systems would create additional work for teachers, create confusion among the public or misidentify schools.

State officials said Wednesday, teachers, students and parents shouldn’t notice much difference. No school or district will be responsible for submitting more data. The state will be responsible for slicing and dicing results from annual tests as they have in the past.

Because Colorado students who opt out tend to be white and more affluent, this change could flag schools for financial support to boost learning that really don’t need it.

State education officials assured the board that it had discretion in identifying whether a school is truly low-performing or if its scores are deflated from low participation.

Earlier this fall, the state took a voluntary step toward the two-system approach when it published a list of schools that qualify for federal grants. The state adopted some, but not all of the federal requirements, when it created that list.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said he hoped the state would not publicize the results from the federal identification system.

“It should not be given equal weight with the data that we find appropriate,” he said.

Durham also asked the state education department to remind schools that it is still illegal to penalize students who opt out of state tests. (It’s also against the law to incentivize students to skip the English and math exams.)

The state must resubmit its plan to the federal government by Oct. 23.

Correction: This post has been updated to clarify how the state previously penalized schools for missing the 95 percent participation rate before the state board took action. 

diploma discussions

Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
College acceptance letters in the main entrance at Tindley Accelerated School.

For years, Indiana has been grappling with how to re-imagine high school diplomas. Today, educators made a seemingly simple suggestion to state officials: Condense Indiana’s four-diploma system down to just one.

“Indiana needs just one diploma,” said Richard Arkanoff, superintendent for Center Grove schools. “But it’s critically important that we provide students with many multiple pathways to get to that one diploma.”

In a community meeting Tuesday night at Noblesville East Middle School, Ken Folks, chief of government affairs at the Indiana Department of Education, said the department is also interested in looking at a single diploma with different “gradations” depending on student needs.

Arkanoff was one of several educators who addressed the graduation pathways committee, led by the Indiana State Board of Education. The group is charged by Indiana lawmakers with creating pathways that will help determine students’ readiness for life after high school.

Currently, Indiana students have a single graduation requirement outside of what’s needed to earn a diploma — passing end-of-course exams in math and English. But next school year, that changes. Instead, to graduate, students will need to complete the pathway, which will replace the two tests, and earn a diploma. It’s not yet clear what those pathways will look like.

Byron Ernest, a state board member and the chairman of the committee, urged members to stay focused on the pathways.

“The purpose of this panel is to create a new system for determining if a student is ready to graduate high school,” Ernest said, adding later that the committee is not responsible for revamping the state’s diploma structure.

Multiple previous efforts to redo diploma requirements have resulted in little action and several false starts. The main impetus behind this flurry of discussion is the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which states that the general diploma can no longer count in the graduation rate Indiana must report to the federal government starting as early as 2018.

The general diploma is a pared-down option that only about 12 percent of Indiana students receive.

To many at the meeting, any conversation about graduation would naturally include diplomas, especially when there is so much urgency around the ESSA changes.

Because of the change, many schools across the state — as well as the state as a whole — would see graduation rates drop, a main factor in high schools’ A-F grades. If a school’s rate falls below 67 percent, the school could also be identified as needing extra support from the state. Folks said 275 Indiana high schools could face that reality going forward.

Laura Hammack, superintendent of Brown County Schools, is one example. She said the ESSA change would have gotten her below or close to the two-thirds mark in 2016 and 2017.

“The news about Indiana’s diploma options and connections to ESSA hit Brown County very hard,” she said.

Indiana lawmakers both at the state and federal level wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking for some time to deal with change before consequences would take effect.

Mary Burton, director of the Northeast Indiana Special Education Cooperative, said a single diploma could also offer benefits for students with special needs, who disproportionately receive general diplomas.

“It’s clear to students that the general diploma is of lesser value,” Burton said. “How about one diploma with (extra certifications)? This option would allow for the rigor we expect from all of our students while respecting and valuing each student’s learning differences.”

According to 2015 data compiled by Achieve, a nonprofit that helps states work on academic standards and tests, 27 states offer multiple high school diploma options. A 2016 analysis from the Virginia Department of Education found that of the 10 states with the highest percentages of graduates going to college, most had moved from multiple diplomas to just one.

Indiana has convened numerous panels and spent scores of hours discussing diplomas and post-high school options for students, with very little action taken.

The discussion around graduation pathways is a variation on that theme. So far, what a pathway is and how it might be structured has not been clearly defined. Mainly, the meetings have brought together educators, community members and business leaders to have wide-ranging conversations about preparing kids for life after high school, whether that’s college, career, military or other options.

After today, the group has six more meetings scheduled through early November.