first draft

Graduating from high school could get more complicated in Indiana, and some fear equity is taking a back seat

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

Indiana is one step closer to a new, more complex system of high school graduation requirements that go beyond what’s already required for a diploma.

A draft of recommendations from the state committee charged with coming up with these new “graduation pathways” include adding “career awareness and exploration” in grades three through eight, among a number of other possible tests and activities.

The pathways would replace current rules that say all high school students must pass state English and math tests to graduate.

“The goal for this panel is to establish graduation pathway recommendations that create an educated and talented workforce able not just to meet the needs of business and higher education, but able to succeed in all postsecondary endeavors,” the draft says.

The panel’s draft recommendations bear a striking resemblance to the original test-heavy pathways set out in the law (page 27), said state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. After eight meetings and many hours of discussion, McCormick said she’d have liked to see more innovative work by now.

“Really if you look at the list it came back down to exactly how the law was written,” McCormick said. “We are having a discussion about our current graduation pathway, a lot of things that are already in our accountability system … We’ve laid it out differently, we’ve packaged it differently, but the contents don’t look a whole lot different.”

Here are potential pathway options the panel has outlined so far. A student would need to complete all diploma requirements as well as at least three of the following:

Potential Indiana graduation pathways

Pathway General requirements Honors requirements
Applied learning work-, project-, or service-based learning experience measured by a portfolio of student work, a school evaluation or an employer evaluation Same as general requirements
Tests (end-of-course assessments plus one of the following) A score of 22 on the ACT, 1010 on the SAT or 35 on the ASVAB A score of 26 on the ACT, 1250 on the SAT or 75 on the ASVAB
Career credentials 6 career and technical education credits in a particular area 6 career and technical education credits in a particular area or completing an industry-recognized credential
College credits 6 transcripted credits 9 transcripted credits, including at least 3 from AP or IB exams
GPA 2.5 GPA or higher 3.0 GPA or higher

During the panel’s meeting, McCormick said she worried that the pathways would include options that not all students had access to.

The Indiana State Board of Education’s legal staff brushed of her concern, as did several committee members.

“Indiana’s Constitution doesn’t require we afford equal access to all pathways to all students,” said Chad Ranney, the state board’s deputy general counsel.

McCormick was undeterred. When that inequity exists for a milestone as big as graduation, she said, it’s a problem regardless of what the law says.

“Legal doesn’t make it correct,” she said.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican on the panel and chairman of the House Education Committee, said the recently passed “course access program” could help mitigate such disparities. The program would allow districts to pay for classes from a yet-to-be-created menu of online or third-party education providers.

The final pathways would replace Indiana’s current graduation test — end-of-course exams in English and math — that all students must pass to receive their diploma unless they are granted a waiver. But the exams themselves aren’t necessarily going anywhere.

The federal government requires that high school students take state tests in English, math and science. In Indiana, those high school tests will likely be end-of-course exams under the ILEARN system, which goes into effect in 2019. Currently, high schoolers must take a 10th-grade ISTEP test.

Graduation waivers would be granted to students who can’t meet enough of the above pathway requirements. Instead, they’d have to show they were accepted to either post-secondary school, a job training program, the military or hired for a job. Now, students can get waivers for passing state tests if they have earned a C average in that subject, secured teacher and principal recommendations and met several other criteria.

In addition to career exploration, the draft recommends that students would also have to — regardless of pathway — demonstrate they have certain “employability skills” such as the ability to communicate, work with others and be punctual. To do that, students would either need 20 hours of community service or “civic engagement experience,” be a leader in a school activity, complete an internship or apprenticeship, earn a “work ethic certificate” from the state, or work at an after-school job.

The panel is set to meet twice more before offering final recommendations to the state board in December.

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.