In a surprise move, a state panel pushes using a college entrance exam as Indiana’s high school test

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

Today’s seventh-graders might be required to take college entrance exams in high school, instead of end-of-course tests, to fulfill the state’s obligation to assess schools.

The proposal, suggested by Indiana House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Behning, was a surprise to some members of a state committee that met Tuesday to put together final recommendations for changes to the state’s graduation requirements. Despite concerns about limited ability to review and discuss the proposal, the committee adopted it as part of its larger package.

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

Behning made the proposal in response to feedback the committee received from educators, who strongly opposed keeping end-of-course exams as a graduation requirement. If the exams no longer count for graduation, their only purpose is state accountability — a pretty abstract incentive for students to do well.

Given that, Behning thought it made sense to make the accountability test something like the ACT or SAT that has clear value to students heading to college. Students would still have to meet the requirements of the new graduation pathways system to earn a diploma.

If adopted by the Indiana State Board of Education and the legislature, the college entrance exam proposal would likely take effect in 2021-2022 for high school juniors, who typically take such tests. The new graduation pathways system would go into effect for the graduating class of 2023, today’s eighth graders. The state would still need to work out the details of the transition.

Although State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick also said she supported the switch to college entrance exams, she had concerns about how the state would pay for them for every student and how eliminating year-end subject tests would change work already underway on ILEARN, the state’s new testing system.

Some committee members, including McCormick, were concerned that such a drastic change was proposed with little advance notice. Today was the committee’s last scheduled meeting, yet the testing proposal was not explicitly discussed in prior meetings or included in previous drafts of recommendations.

“This was a curveball to me,” said John Elcesser, executive director for the Indiana Non-Public Education Association, who voted no on the recommendations. “To say that in an hour we’re changing something that significant.”

But the idea itself isn’t new. As the state has changed tests numerous times over the past few years, the idea of using an SAT or ACT has come up. Proponents like that scores from Indiana students could be compared with students across the country and that it saves the state the cost of creating a proprietary exam. But critics say the test was never intended to be used as graduation exam, and it would have to undergo review and adjustments to align with Indiana’s academic standards.

The test proposal was just one part of a complicated set of recommendations the committee sent to the state board today for what students in the class of 2023 need to do to graduate from high school. The new pathways would take effect for current eighth-graders, but schools could opt-in to the new pathways earlier — and again, it’s not yet clear what that would look like or who would pay for it.

The full proposal — developed over the past few months — still didn’t satisfy the concerns of educators across the state.

Today and at last week’s state board meeting, teachers and administrators said the proposed graduation requirements would be labor-intensive and expensive to implement, are too test-focused and could leave out students who are not college-bound or those with special needs.

“Tests in the pathways are good, but they are only one way for students to access a quality education,” said Fort Wayne Superintendent Wendy Robinson. “(It will) take time to implement, time to plan, time to train and time to fund or find funding.”

Under the proposed recommendations, students would have three areas whose requirements they must complete to graduate:

Potential Indiana graduation pathways

Pathway requirements Pathway options
High school diploma Meet the requirements of Indiana’s high school diplomas
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 of 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. At least one course must be in a core content area
— Complete requirements of a locally created pathway that is approved by the state board

The graduation requirement changes were mandated by lawmakers earlier this year. They asked the state board to form a committee to develop better ways to determine if students are ready for life after high school.

The recommendations are expected to head to the state board for approval at its December meeting, but the committee said it would continue to meet to discuss certain topics, including testing and diploma changes. It’s also possible the state vote is delayed — officials wouldn’t confirm a vote would happen.

Board member Steve Yager said last week he is worried the committee is moving too quickly on the recommendations as a whole to properly incorporate feedback from educators.

“I still can’t understand what the rush is,” Yager said. “It doesn’t make sense for us to rush and push that through and cause consternation and distrust” from educators and parents.

But other board members argued the recommendations need to be approved soon so that the legislature can include them in bills when the session starts in January. Lawmakers would need to approve any changes to testing, accountability or diplomas.

Read: Educators to state officials: ‘Indiana needs just one diploma’

McCormick said the state board needs to keep focused on what it is ultimately trying to accomplish with the pathway system, especially as schools grapple with how to implement such complicated plans.

“Are we playing a game or are we changing things?” she said. “We’re impacting generations of kids.”

Every Student Succeeds Act

Plans for a single Indiana diploma advance with new rules that raise the bar for graduation waivers

In a move that might make it more difficult for some students to graduate, Indiana lawmakers are considering raising the threshold for allowing students to earn a diploma when they have fallen short of some state requirements.

A proposal to change the graduation waiver system is the latest attempt by the state to amend graduation requirements as part of a policy initiative to ensure that students are prepared for life after high school. The change in waiver policy could make it more challenging for students who struggle academically to complete high school.

“I want to make sure we have as few waivers as possible,” said Rep. Bob Behning, Republican chairman of the House Education Committee and author of House Bill 1426, which includes the waiver changes. And if a waiver is necessary, he said, he wants the requirements to be stringent enough to ensure post-graduate success.

The proposed waiver requirements are part of a sweeping effort by the state to align state law with the state’s new graduation pathways system. The bill, which passed its first major hurdle with the approval of the House Education Committee on Tuesday, would combine the state’s four diplomas into one to deal with the effects of a change in federal law that no longer counts the state’s less-rigorous general diploma in the federal graduation rate. With one diploma, Indiana would be more likely to pass muster under the new federal rules, but final approval from the federal government won’t come for several months.

An amendment to the bill proposed on Tuesday will change Indiana’s policy for allowing students to receive a waiver that, while controversial, is widely used. More than 8 percent of the more than 70,000 students who graduated last year received waivers from meeting graduation requirements.

Supporters say waivers provide opportunities to students who might face challenges that affect their ability to meet the basic graduation requirements. But critics say they allow high schools to push through students that lack the kind of skills needed to be successfully employed.

Waiver requirements for students with disabilities would not change under the new proposal.

The current system allows students who repeatedly fail required state tests in English and math to be granted a waiver that lets them graduate if they meet other criteria.

But under the new pathways system, which will affect students now in seventh grade, the state graduation exam will be replaced with one of several new graduation pathways requirements, which could include passing a college-entrance exam, taking career and technical education classes, or passing advanced courses.

Under Behning’s proposal, a waiver would be granted if a student had earned an average GPA of 2.0; maintained 95 percent attendance; or if he or she has been admitted to college, a job training program, the military or has an opportunity to start a career.

The bill allows a school’s principal to approve alternative requirements but doesn’t address how those would be developed. The new rules could also be used by students transferring from schools that are out of state or from private schools not held to graduation pathway rules.

The current criteria to receive a waiver do not call for students to be admitted to college, the military or a job. Students do have to maintain a 95 percent attendance record and a 2.0 grade point average, and also have to complete requirements for a general diploma, take a workforce readiness assessment or earn an industry certification approved by the state board. The standards also require students to obtain letters of recommendation from teachers (with approval of the school principal) and to use class work to show students have mastered the subject despite failing the graduation exam.

It’s not yet clear how many students might be affected by a change to the graduation waiver system. In the months since the Indiana State Board of Education approved the new graduation pathways, educators have raised concerns to state board staff members about the types of students who might not have a clear-cut pathway under the plan — for example, a student headed to college who might not have an exceptional academic record. A waiver outlined by HB 1426 could give them another shot. But for students without definite post-graduation plans, that waiver could be out of reach.

None of the educators or education advocates who testified on the bill spoke out specifically on the waiver changes. Mike Brown, director of legislative affairs for the Indiana Department of Education, said that based on a “cursory look,” the department didn’t have any issues with it.

Aside from the diploma and graduation waiver changes, the bill would also:

  • Make Indiana’s high school test a college-entrance exam, such as the ACT or SAT, instead of end-of-year tests in English and math.
  • Encourage the state board to look into alternatives for Algebra 2, currently a diploma requirement.
  • Ask the state board to establish guidelines for how districts and schools can create “local” graduation pathways and how they would be approved by the state board. It would also add $500,000 to fund development of local pathways that districts and schools could apply for.
  • Eliminate the Accuplacer exam, which schools now use to see if high school students need remediation in English or math before they graduate.

Because the bill includes a request for state funding, it next heads to the House Ways and Means Committee.

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.”