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.

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.

Community voices

A day before vote, parents and educators passionately object to new high school graduation plan

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The state board's graduation pathways work session was packed Tuesday.

One day before Indiana education officials are set to vote on a plan that would overhaul the state’s high school graduation requirements, many educators and parents from across the state spoke out strongly against it.

The “graduation pathways” plan has attracted concerns from principals and district leaders since a state committee began developing it in August. 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 many don’t see how they differ from the state’s existing diploma structure or serve students with learning challenges.

Under the plan, not only would students need to meet diploma requirements, but they would also have to satisfy additional criteria in most cases, which could be an exam, completing a certain number of advanced courses or gaining credit for internships.

Read: 6 things to know before Indiana officials vote on new high school graduation rules

A vote is expected on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Indiana State Board of Education held a work session to review the final proposal. During an hour of public comment, a couple dozen people spoke, all but one — Ivy Tech Community College President Sue Ellsperman — voicing disapproval for the plan.

Parents, principals, teachers, superintendents and education advocates who spoke relayed a number of issues they had with the plan. Their comments, as well as more than 300 other emails the Indiana Department of Education received on the pathways, boiled down to five main areas of concern: cost, how schools would track the pathways, how the pathways would work for students with special needs, how the pathways committee would address diploma changes, and what options were available for students who weren’t planning to attend college.

Here’s a collection of comments from Tuesday’s meeting. The state board will meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday, when there will be more time for public comment before an expected vote.

Shara Swift, a parent from Fort Wayne. Swift said her son, who has learning disabilities, is already working hard to achieve current diploma requirements. She worries the vague, test-focused pathways plan is one more burden for her family.

“He is progressing and he is succeeding, but it takes a tireless amount of effort on his part and on the part of us as a family,” she said.

“Further testing and nebulous and undefined requirements will only set him up for failure,” she said. “In my view, I can discern no clear pathways for students who struggle like my son.”

Randy Harris, Huntington County superintendent. Harris echoed Swift’s concerns about students with special needs, and brought up a frequent criticism of the pathways: The state already has four diplomas with detailed requirements.

“I am really concerned … about the students with (Individualized Education Plans), those students who give everything they have every day to climb the steps that we put in front of them to get that high school diploma.

“If they don’t get that high school diploma, I don’t know what they are going to do with the rest of their lives. The employers won’t even talk to them without that diploma. We are punishing them for all those high efforts that they give with the maximum of their ability.

“We have one pathway already, called a high school diploma.”

Brian Knight, principal at Southport High School in Perry Township. Knight, like many of Tuesday’s speakers, called for more attention to be placed on how pathways would play out for special education students. While the pathways committee heard many comments during their meetings about students with special needs, little actual discussion was had on ways to make pathways work for them.

“I struggle to figure out which pathway meets the needs of the students who need us the most.”

Jennifer Ledger, a parent from Fort Wayne. Ledger’s son has a chronic illness that results in  learning problems requiring him to take extra classes. She said she can’t see how he would even have time for more graduation requirements. Under the proposed plan, he wouldn’t be able to graduate, she said.

“He is more than a piece of paper that says certificate of attendance … Can you honestly look him in the eye and say, ‘You did not graduate from high school”?

“Under your pathway recommendations,” she said,  “I wouldn’t be a graduate from high school.”

Wendy Robinson, Fort Wayne Schools superintendent. Robinson summed up most of the comments succinctly: Wait. Just about every speaker asked the state board to delay their vote  until more information was available.

“I’m amazed that we can agree on one thing,” she said. “Everybody is telling you the same thing. I want to echo: Pause. I don’t think anybody today told you to throw everything away. We all want rigor.”

Find all of Chalkbeat’s graduation pathways coverage here.