Every year, Kristie Keating sits down with each of her senior special education students, together with their parents, teachers, and other specialists, to discuss the student’s plans for graduation.

But this year, Keating, the director of special education at Pike High School, will have to consider the fact that her school could be penalized if the student graduates with the less rigorous general diploma instead of the Core 40.

“I have a student this year who’s going to be a senior, his parents were told when he was in elementary school that he would never graduate from high school,” Keating said. Now, he’s almost ready to graduate with the general diploma. Keating rankles at the thought of asking his mother if he should be on a more difficult graduation plan.

Keating and other educators are in this dilemma because new federal rules have removed the general diploma from counting toward the graduation rate. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must calculate their graduation rate based on the diploma received by most students – the Core 40 diploma in Indiana.

The new policy forces the state to confront a long-standing conflict in Indiana education: wanting high schools to prepare students for the increasing demands of college and careers, and wanting to make sure struggling students have opportunities after graduation.

Students who aren’t able to complete the Core 40 diploma can still find their way to a job or community college through the general diploma. The general diploma is the state’s least rigorous graduation plan, earned by 12 percent of the state’s graduates.

The Core 40 diploma, which is the default for Indiana students, requires an extra year each of science, social studies, and math; with even more coursework, students can earn a Core 40 Honors diploma as well. Students and parents have to opt out of the Core 40 diploma in order to receive the general diploma.

The extra requirements in the Core 40 program make the general diploma the only accessible graduation pathway for some students with intellectual disabilities, Keating said.

Of course, the change in how graduation rates are calculated doesn’t mean that general diplomas will disappear – but schools will certainly try to steer more students to the Core 40. If they don’t, their graduation rates will plummet, and because the graduation rate is part of the state’s A-F grade calculation, those school ratings would fall as well.

Pike High School principal Troy Inman said Pike might have to reduce course offerings and teachers in its Career and Technical Education program – classes where students could learn skills in cooking or air conditioning maintenance, or earn a barber shop license – in order to increase academic offerings. Students who switch from the general diploma to the Core 40 track would spend less of their class time in electives, and more in extra science, math, and social studies classes.

Most students could do both, Inman said, but students who struggle academically might have to retake a harder math class or get extra support in order to pass the Core 40 requirements, leaving even less time for career-focused electives which may be more useful to them.

The Core 40 classes are “going to have to be their only focus, and I don’t know if that’s the best thing for these students,” Inman said.

Keating said she and her staff may advise some students to stay in high school for an additional year to complete the Core 40 diploma. Schools get partial credit in their A-F grades for students who take five years to get a diploma.

It is still unclear whether the new graduation rate will be calculated for the graduating class of 2018, or for the incoming freshman class, said Adam Baker, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education. Educators say that it may be too late to prepare students who are graduating next spring for the Core 40’s requirements.

As schools grapple with reducing the number of general diplomas they give out and making the Core 40 more attainable, some state officials say they should have already been moving in this direction.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have removed the general diploma from the graduation rate, as the ESSA plan does now. He is concerned about high schools that give out general diplomas to large portions of their students, like Brown County, where 40 percent of last year’s graduates received the general diploma.

 

Top 10 Marion County high schools, by percent of graduates receiving the general diploma in 2016

SCHOOL DISTRICT GENERAL DIPLOMA
Decatur Township School for Excellence Decatur Township 59%
John Marshall Community High School Indianapolis Public Schools 30%
Pike High School Pike Township 24%
North Central High School Washington Township 21%
Southport High School Perry Township 20%
Arlington Community High School Indianapolis Public Schools 18%
Warren Central High School Warren Township 18%
Lawrence Central High School Lawrence Township 18%
Speedway Senior High School Speedway Schools 18%
Decatur Central High School Decatur Township 17%

 

Behning fears that students have been counseled into the general diploma track, even if they could do more. “You want kids to pursue the most rigorous high school track they possibly can,” Behning said. “You want them to have the most opportunities to be successful.”

Colleges and universities are asking more of students than the general diploma, or even the Core 40, can provide, Behning said. Of the high school graduates who go on to attend a public university in Indiana, 20 percent of Core 40 diploma earners and half of general diploma earners ended up needing remediation in math or English, according to the Commission for Higher Education.

Schools can’t afford to keep graduating unprepared students, warned commission member Jason Bearce, as more careers demand a college education and even non-college careers require more skills.

“What employers are asking of their employees is very similar to what colleges are asking of students,” Bearce said. “The standard of what students are being asked to do are being raised.”

However, Keating said that doesn’t line up with what she sees in her school community. Some students are better off learning skills or getting a technical license than struggling through an extra year of math. Some of them even end up earning more money than her students who go to college.

Behning acknowledged that there are some students who wouldn’t be able to graduate without the general diploma. But only a third of students who received general diplomas in 2016 were special education students.

On top of that, only a small portion of special education students have a disability that prevents them from earning a Core 40 diploma, said Kim Dodson of Arc of Indiana, a nonprofit advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

However, she said, those who can’t earn a Core 40 still deserve to graduate and be counted.

“Every student should count, every student should matter,” Dodson said. “Every student should have the opportunity to receive a diploma and have those opportunities after high school.”

Apart from cognitive disability, there are a host of difficult circumstances that could prevent a student from being able to get the Core 40 diploma, said Warren Central High School director of counseling Bre Brown – suffering from chronic illness, becoming a parent, or dealing with traumatic home lives, for example.

Brown said schools and students shouldn’t be punished when they’re faced with difficult circumstances such as these.

“It’s a little disheartening to think that a child who is able to leave high school with a skill or with the amount of knowledge to be able to get a full-time, good-paying job or an associate’s degree,  is somehow going to be held against the school system just because there were struggles in certain areas,” Brown said.

Dodson and Brown worry about how schools themselves will react. Brown said she fears that this change might signal to two-year institutions such as Ivy Tech that students with a general diploma aren’t good enough to admit. Dodson is also concerned that high schools will use this as an excuse not to admit special education students into their schools.

“We already know that a lot of schools say they don’t have the resources to teach special ed students, and we don’t want to give them any more reason,” Dodson said.

Dodson also said that removing general diplomas from the graduation rate may cause high schools to give less priority to general diploma students, when it comes to resources and quality teachers.

“Usually what counts is what’s measured,” Dodson said. “… We get it. We get that (schools) want their graduation rates to be as high as possible. We would rather work with them to make sure the achievements of special education students still matter and count.”

Pike principal Troy Inman said it was inevitable that schools would shift their focus away from the general diploma.

“If it doesn’t count toward your graduation rate, it’s going to hurt your accountability, and that’s your grade and how your school is perceived,” he said.

Indiana’s A-F accountability ratings don’t just affect a school’s reputation with parents and students. They affect teacher bonuses, and schools that have F ratings for more than four years can be taken over by the state. ESSA also requires states to intervene in schools whose graduation rates drop below 67 percent.

The discussion about the new graduation rate isn’t quite over yet – the Indiana Department of Education is still talking with the federal government about finding a way to keep the general diploma in the graduation rate. McCormick wrote to the state’s U.S. congressional representatives on July 24, asking for their help.

One solution would be to utilize a provision of ESSA that allows students with severe disabilities to earn an alternative diploma. But Dodson and Behning both were concerned that schools would end up pushing all their special education students into that diploma track, even those that could earn the Core 40.

Another solution would be to change the state diploma structure by establishing a single diploma, with additional certifications for students who complete the Core 40 or Honors requirements. This could be done by the state legislature, but would fly in the face of the state’s attempts to shift toward a more rigorous default diploma.

“As a state you want to keep that rigor up. You want to keep up that academic capacity,” state superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in July. “It does us no good though in the meantime to have high schools that are all identified as Fs. It doesn’t benefit students, it doesn’t benefit communities.”

Whatever the outcome of these proposals, in the meantime, educators like Brown will have to strike a balance, between what the state demands and what students can achieve.

“We will certainly do our due diligence to do what’s right for our students and for our school system,” Brown said. “But it’s definitely going to make it more challenging for us.”