first steps

Next year, Indiana high schoolers will have to meet more “college or career readiness” requirements to graduate

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The discussions out of the graduation pathway committee have been illustrated by several graphic artists.

A year from now, Indiana high school students will have to meet an extra set of requirements to graduate in an effort to better prepare them for what comes after.

It’s not yet clear exactly what those requirements will be, but a committee led by the Indiana State Board of Education is beginning the process to figure it out. The charge to develop these “graduation pathways” came down from the Indiana General Assembly in the same bill that established the test that will replace ISTEP in 2019.

“We want these pathways to serve as the culmination of a student’s (high school) career,” said committee chairman and state board member Byron Ernest. “We want to show them a true readiness and show businesses and higher education a true readiness of our students.”

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, a member of the 14-member graduation pathways committee, said today that the pathways need to be a collaboration between schools, the state, community members and the workforce. It can’t fall to schools alone to fund, manage and be held accountable for new programs.

“It really does have to be a partnership,” McCormick said. “I understand some of the struggles … (the workforce) is in a crisis, too, with employees, but it’s one of those if we are going to solve the problem, we’re going to have to work hard to come up with solutions.”

The panel includes representatives from the Commission for Higher Education, Department of Workforce Development, state board, legislature, Indiana Chamber of Commerce and a few parents and educators. It is set to meet seven more times through early November.

The state board has final authority of which requirements would end up counting, but the law spells out some suggestions:

  • Passing end-of-course, International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, dual credit or college entrance exams, such as the ACT or SAT.
  • Earning industry-recognized certificates
  • Passing the placement exam for the U.S. military

Indiana’s academic and technical honors diplomas — which 37.9 percent of students in the state earned in 2015-16 — already include requirements that pertain to AP, IB and dual credit exams, and industry certificates. There’s no guidance in the law about how these pathways would differ from what’s already in honors diplomas.

Much of the conversation at today’s inaugural meeting followed familiar themes found in years of previous discussions by the Indiana Career Council, established in 2013: Indiana employers can’t fill jobs; students leave high school and college unprepared to enter the workforce; therefore, state education and workforce agencies, and employers need to get together to figure out a solution.

Bruce Watson, director of facilities for Fort Wayne Metals, is one such employer struggling to find prospective employees. He addressed the board during public comment.

“I can’t hire people to maintain our growth,” Watson said. “Not everybody needs a four-year degree … this is not a low-dollar, unskilled workforce. This is something significant for a career.”

The discussion today was broad and wide-ranging, covering ideas on work-based learning requirements, how to credential students for high-demand jobs, counselor and teacher shortages, character education, and how to balance the needs of rural, urban and suburban districts.

But the group did manage to agree on a few main points to guide their work going forward: Students should have flexibility to change their minds before they graduate; the pathway system should be equitable and easy to explain to students and parents; and employers should be part of the conversation.

Ultimately, practicality needs to be prioritized, said panel member John Elcesser, executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, a group that advocates for private schools.

“Can we staff it, can we resource it and can counselors manage it?” Elcesser said. “I think that has to be in the back of our mind.”

You can find the panel’s upcoming meeting schedule here. Meetings are open to the public.

Indiana graduation pathways

Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

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.”

graduation rules

Indiana’s new high school graduation rules were widely opposed by parents and educators. The state board approved them anyway.

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
When asked if they opposed the graduation pathways plan, many superintendents at Wednesday's state board meeting stood.

Indiana education officials approved a controversial plan for additional high school graduation requirements on Wednesday, despite nearly six hours of intense objections from about 60 teachers, parents and school leaders.

On Twitter, Indiana State Teachers Association President Teresa Meredith said she was disappointed that the Indiana State Board of Education ultimately supported the measure.

“Following hours of public comments and hundreds of emails from parents, teachers, counselors and school administrators asking members to slow down and figure out the many unknowns — their voices were ignored,” Meredith said.

The committee’s final recommendations were approved 7 to 4, with board members Maryanne McMahon, Cari Whicker, Steve Yager, and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick voting no. McCormick did not make herself available for comment after the vote.

Whicker, the state board’s vice chairwoman and principal of Southern Wells Elementary School, said if the board expects educators across the state to go along with this new plan — which they will soon have to carry out in their schools — board members must listen to their concerns.

“Once we put this into place, these people are going to own it, and these people are going to need to implement it,” Whicker said, referring to educators. “If we need their buy-in, we’re going to need to give them time … we need to listen.”

Whicker’s sentiments were shared by dozens of educators and parents who spoke to the state board on Tuesday and Wednesday. A minority of speakers supported the plan, a number that included representatives from major state universities, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, the Indiana Manufacturers Association, the Commission for Higher Education, and a few K-12 educators.

Alicia Kielmovitch, state Board of Education policy and legislative director, said the pathways are necessary because current Indiana employers say they can’t find qualified job candidates. Higher education officials have reported that about 14 percent of students at public colleges in 2015 didn’t have requisite math and English skills — though that number has decreased from 31 percent in 2011.

“The high school diploma is no longer the finish line,” Kielmovitch said. “Not all students are prepared for the rigors of higher education when they arrive.”

Work on the “graduation pathways” plan was started by a state committee earlier this summer. The goal was to create a system that would ensure students are ready for life after high school, but the resulting recommendations are complex and seem to have much overlap with existing Indiana diplomas.

Under the plan, students need to meet diploma requirements and also, in most cases, satisfy additional criteria. Those could be exams, completing advanced courses, or gaining credit for internships.

Read: 6 things to know about Indiana’s new high school graduation rules

Critics said the pathways could be out of reach for students who struggle academically or those with disabilities. The system could also add a lot of work for already overworked school counselors. Many educators were also concerned that the plan included no details about sources of funding or how much carrying out the pathways plan might cost.

The Indiana General Assembly passed a bill last year that charged the state board with creating a committee to develop a pathways system. The proposal likely will not need the approval of lawmakers when they convene in January.

However, lawmakers will have to change the effective date from 2018-19 to 2019-2020 — meaning the pathways plan would influence today’s seventh-graders when they start high school rather than today’s eighth-graders.

Lawmakers would also have to decide whether to accept the committee’s suggestion to use a college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, as the state’s high school test, replacing the current ISTEP 10, and under the new ILEARN plan, end-of-course exams in math, English and science.

Education officials said the graduation pathways proposal would require them to amend the plan Indiana recently submitted to the federal government outlining how it plans to comply with the new Every Student Succeeds Act.

The graduation pathways plan would require students to complete at least one option from each of the following three buckets:

Potential Indiana graduation pathways

Pathway requirements Pathway options
High school diploma Meet high school diploma requirements
Show employability skills (complete at least one of the options through locally developed programs) — Project-based learning experience
— Service-based learning experience
— Work-based learning experience
Show postsecondary readiness (complete at least one of the options) — Meet all requirements of an Indiana Academic or Technical Honors Diploma
— Meet the “college-ready benchmarks” for the ACT or SAT
— Earn a score of 31 or higher on the ASVAB
— Earn a state- and industry-recognized credential or certification
— Complete a state-, federal- or industry-recognized apprenticeship
— Earn a C average or better in at least 6 high school credits in a career and technical education sequence
— Earn a C average or better in three AP, IB, CLEP, Cambridge International or dual credit courses.
— Complete requirements of a locally created pathway that is approved by the state board

Find all of Chalkbeat’s graduation pathways coverage here.