Every Student Succeeds Act

Special education advocates want all students to be ready for life after high school — even those who don’t get diplomas

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on an assignment at Decatur Central High School. (File Photo)

Indiana’s certificate of completion has for years meant basically one thing: A student showed up for school.

But the state’s special education officials say it’s due for major changes. They are redesigning the certificate to make it more meaningful — both to students and to their future employers.

Certificates of completion are intended for students with cognitive disabilities that make them unable to earn a traditional high school diploma. The non-academic credential is loosely defined in state law and says a student has attended school and completed the goals in his or her Individualized Education Program. The state does not consider a student who receives a certificate a graduate.

That will be different with the new certificate, which would include specific academic requirements, such as a minimum of four math credits and a final project to prepare students for the workforce, such as an internship. Parents and school officials would still have to weigh in before a student could switch from a diploma track to a certificate of completion.

“We realized that the certificate of completion really didn’t give teachers, parents or students any guidelines for what they would be working on in schools,” said Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education. “We want to have some guidelines around that framework so kids continue to be held to high expectations.”

The proposal will be presented to the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday, but it does not require approval, Wright said. Students would begin to use the new certificate starting with the class of 2022.

The state has decided to bolster the certificate for a few reasons: Community members and parents were worried students with a certificate might not be prepared or able to get jobs. More urgently, state officials also noticed that last year, the number of students who received one increased “significantly.”

Overall, few Indiana students earn a certificate of completion. In 2015, 11 percent of students with disabilities earned a certificate, which grew to 16 percent in 2016 — about 1.3 percent of all Indiana students.

That jump was troubling to educators on the state’s Special Education Advisory Council because certificates of completion are supposed to be a last resort, not a fix for students who could graduate with more help.

Of the students earning certificates of completion, 27.5 percent have mild cognitive disabilities, 19.5 percent have Autism spectrum disorders and 18.5 have moderate cognitive disabilities, making up the three largest categories of students.

Wright said she was “most concerned about the group of kids with mild cognitive disabilities. I really believe that if we had started early with high expectations for kids … a lot of those kids would now be able to earn a diploma.”

The new guidelines for the certificate of completion are also important because they could be used as a template for an “alternate” diploma, which federal law says must be based on state academic standards and only applies to students “with the most significant cognitive disabilities.” Indiana doesn’t currently award an alternate diploma, but the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, would allow for up to 1 percent of students across the state to earn it.

Some special education advocates have expressed concerns that an alternate or “special education” diploma could incentivize schools to remove students with disabilities from the diploma track — even if they’re capable of earning one. It’s similar to concerns about certificates of completion, which also take kids out the running for a diploma.

“That’s what we hear all the time — once a child goes on that certificate of completion, it’s like, well, they can’t learn, so we’re not going to spend our time there,” said Kim Dodson, executive director of the Arc of Indiana, a group that advocates for people with disabilities. “Kids end up regressing.”

Dodson said the fact that Indiana’s general diploma will eventually no longer count toward federal graduation rates adds new things to consider in the conversation about alternate diplomas. The general diploma is a pared-down option typically earned by students who struggle academically or those with special needs.

“We support making the certificate more meaningful, but we still struggle with will kids get pushed there instead of the general diploma?” Dodson said. “That concern gets lessened now that the general diploma won’t count either, which raises a whole other set of issues … if (an alternate diploma) will count in the graduation rate and the general diploma won’t, then we need to re-evaluate our concerns.”

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.