Future of Work

As Indiana schools try to make every graduate count, educators fear struggling students will lose out

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

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.”

Getting the diploma

New York eases graduation requirements for students with disabilities

Parent rally outside the state education building for more diploma options. (Courtesy Betty Pilnik)

In a significant change to New York’s graduation requirements, students with disabilities will soon be able to earn an alternative diploma without passing any of the state’s exit exams.

Instead, the state will allow them to replace a minimum score on the Regents exams with a work-readiness credential, which they can earn through work experience and vocational classes or by passing an exam that assesses entry-level work skills.

Supporters, including parents who lobbied for the rule change, say it is a reasonable way to prevent students with disabilities from missing out on a diploma because of low test scores. But critics have argued the policy would lower the state’s graduation standards.

On Monday, when the state Board of Regents approved the change as an “emergency measure,” state officials tried to preempt any suggestion that the change would water down the standards.

“We’re not saying that they have to do less. We’re saying that the standards are the same and the requirements are the same,” said Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy education commissioner, during the Regents’ monthly meeting. “What we’re talking about is, if you have a disability that precludes you from actually passing the exam, or demonstrating what you know with the current exams, this is the mechanism to do it.”

A Regents committee voted in favor of the rule Monday after it was added to their meeting agenda without prior notice or public comment — prompting an outcry from at least one education advocacy group. If the full board signs off Tuesday, the change will go into effect immediately, enabling students to graduate under the new requirements as early as next month.

The state currently grants different types of high-school diploma. A traditional “Regents” diploma requires students to pass four Regents exams. An alternative “local” diploma is available to certain students — including those with disabilities, who are still learning English, or who have struggled academically — who pass two exams or meet other requirements.

Students with disabilities only need a score of 55 (or 52, on appeal) on their math and English exams rather than the usual 65 to earn a local diploma. Under the new policy, they will not need to achieve any minimum score.

Instead, superintendents will review students’ work to check that it reflects appropriate knowledge of the material, students must pass their classes and participate in the exams. They will also have to earn a work-readiness credential called the Career Development and Occupational Studies Commencement Credential, or CDOS.

The credential, created in 2013 for students with disabilities, is meant to certify that students are ready for employment. There are two ways to earn it: One option allows students to complete 216 hours of vocational coursework and participate in job shadowing. The other lets students take an approved work-readiness exam, some of which have been criticized for lacking rigor.

It is unclear how many students would benefit from this new option. (Last year, only 418 students with disabilities took advantage of a “superintendent’s review” option allowing them to earn a local diploma by passing just the math and English Regents exams.) State officials have not estimated how many students may benefit from the new option but said they do not expect it to be a large number.

The policy is designed to help students like Lauren Elie and Brandon Pilnik, whose mothers were among the parents lobbying the state for years to change the graduation rules. After Monday’s vote, they burst into applause.

Brandon and Lauren, who are dating and each have a disability, are both one Regents exam shy of a diploma. Lauren, who missed the qualifying score on her English exam by one point, is working with kindergarteners as a teacher’s aide; Brandon is a musician who plays at a senior rehab center. Both have had to take internships instead of full-time jobs because they lack diplomas, their parents said.

“I was very excited, beyond excited,” said Betty Pilnik, Brandon’s mother, who has been fighting for the policy change for more than two years. “Anyone who knows Brandon knows that he deserves this.”

Ashley Grant, an attorney at Advocates for Children, said some of her organization’s clients have completed their required high-school courses but struggled to pass the exit exams. She said it was encouraging that the state is creating a route to graduation that bypasses the exams — which she does not consider to be the same as easing requirements.

“Simply removing the barrier of Regents exams doesn’t mean standards are being lowered,” she said.

But some proponents of strong state standards took the opposite view. Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the advocacy group High Achievement New York, who criticized the last-minute addition of the measure to the Regents’ agenda, noted that the latest graduation change comes just a year after the state created the “superintendents’ review” graduation option.

“The Regents shouldn’t make significant policy changes with an 11th hour and 59th minute addition to the agenda,” he said in a statement. “Removing another graduation requirement, demonstrating a minimum score on ELA and Math Regents exams, so soon after the last change is the wrong direction.”

The state will expected public comments on the new policy through Feb. 12. After that, the Regents are expected to vote on a permanent rule change in March.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

Test case

New York’s free-college program comes with a big catch: Students who fall off track risk losing their scholarships

PHOTO: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivers his State of the State address.

With thousands of college students about to finish their first semester under New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship Program, advocates, critics and researchers will be looking closely at one crucial question: How did they do?

The new scholarship — which provides free college tuition at state public schools to students whose families make less than $100,000 a year — is the first program in the nation in which a state offers free tuition at four-year colleges. But the program has also been criticized for its many restrictions, including strict credit requirements and an obligation to live and work in the state after graduation.

One early sign of the program’s effectiveness will be whether students can keep up with their classwork. The scholarship banks on the idea that students will not fall behind over the course of a year. The penalty for failing to complete the required credits by year’s end are substantial: Students must pay back a semester’s tuition and forfeit future funds.

Tracking the number of scholarship students who fail to complete courses in this first semester of the program will provide one indication of how many students may struggle to meet the requirements, experts said.

In the next two to three years, once there’s a lot of numerical data, we’re all going to have a much better sense of how this program is faring and what specific issues may arise that need to be ironed out,” said Arthur Ramsay, spokesman for the SUNY Student Assembly, which represents students throughout the State University of New York.

The state intends to expand the income eligibility for the program by 2019 to include families who make $125,000 or less a year.

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the scholarship last spring, critics jumped on the requirement that students complete 30 credits a year — the average course load required to graduate on-time — since many students struggle to finish in two or four years. But Cuomo argued that it will encourage more students to graduate faster, and that dragging out college makes it less likely students will ever complete a degree.

Eric Neutuch, a doctoral candidate at Northeastern who is studying financial aid, said that he could potentially see the credit requirement having both positive and negative effects. It is possible more students will sign up for extra credits in order to keep their scholarship, but losing a scholarship may throw off students who otherwise would have graduated, he said.

“There is potential that students will lose Excelsior, not regain it, owe money back to their college and throw their hands up and say, ‘I’m done with college,’” Neutuch said. More scrutiny is necessary to figure out what the result will be, he said.

The scholarship’s rules leave some wiggle room, but not a lot. If students fall behind, they can attempt to make up a class the next semester. Students are also allowed to count summer classes, though they are only eligible for the scholarship during the school year. Some students may also be granted hardship waivers for the death of a family member, health problems, or parental leave.

But the credit requirement may be particularly onerous for students not quite ready for college-level work. They must take a full course-load in addition to any remedial classes, which may be required for students in associate’s degree programs. Only 46 percent of New York City students meet the benchmark to avoid remedial classes at the City University of New York.

If history is any indication, college students from New York City will struggle with this set of rules. According to a CUNY report, only about 32 percent of students pursuing bachelor’s degrees completed 30 credits in 2014. (CUNY is now using a separate metric focused on freshman to track credit accumulation.) In associate degree programs, less than 10 percent of entering freshman in 2015 finished 30 credits in their first year.

State officials argue part of the scholarship’s goal is to improve that metric.

“The Excelsior Scholarship is designed to help as many students as possible attend college tuition-free while boosting on-time completion and reducing student debt,” said Elizabeth Bibi, a spokesperson from the governor’s office. “Most importantly, in its first year alone, the scholarship is already helping thousands of New Yorkers attend college with zero tuition-costs—something to be celebrated.”

But for many students, taking 30 credits each year is simply not possible, said Stephanie Fiorelli, the postsecondary success manager at Urban Assembly, which supports 21 small public schools in New York City. She said many students who graduated from Urban Assembly schools are working between 15 and 20 hours a week on top of attending school. They have family obligations, run into problems paying for transportation, and struggle with a myriad of obstacles out of their control.

“These kids want to be in school full-time.” she said. “It’s not feasible at all.”

Other complications could play into students’ ability to reach the 30-credit requirement. Natan Nassir, a sophomore at Binghamton University, started his year with the state’s Excelsior scholarship, but ran into trouble when he decided to switch majors.

For his new major, he was encouraged, but not technically required, to take a computer science course. However, since he does not need that class in order to graduate, it does not count towards his 30 required credits, he said. (State officials said that all credits must count towards a student graduating and getting a degree.)

He will be one class shy of what he needs (even though he is taking a full course load) and he plans to attend summer school to make up the extra class.

“I was very surprised, honestly, when she told me about this requirement,” Nassir said, “I had no idea that it existed. I kind of thought, ‘Well now what?’”