Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana moves to create an ‘alternate’ diploma for students with severe disabilities

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Even as Indiana is grappling with how to condense high school diplomas to comply with a new federal law, lawmakers are considering creating a new one for students with severe disabilities.

The “alternate” diploma would not affect Indiana’s efforts to create new graduation requirements, known as graduation pathways. It also doesn’t really factor into debates over the general diploma’s inclusion in the graduation rate. But it does take advantage of the same law that excluded the general diploma and has posed some of Indiana’s compliance problems, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The new federal law says states can offer alternate diplomas to students with severe cognitive disabilities, opening a door for those who otherwise would not have been graduates. The idea was amended into a House bill on Thursday.

Earning a diploma can give students more opportunities for employment after graduation. It also means that these students would count in Indiana’s graduation rate, allowing their academic achievements to be recognized alongside their peers. For special education advocates, a priority has been to make sure as many students “count” as possible and ensure they are receiving the education and support they need.

Under the proposal added to House Bill 1426 from Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican who is chairman of the House Education Committee, the Indiana State Board of Education would create the diploma. It would have to be based on Indiana academic standards and reflect the goals of a typical diploma, but it would allow for classes more suited to the needs of students with cognitive disabilities.

Alternate diplomas, in place in 24 states as of 2016, mirror requirements in typical diplomas, but they are designed to include students who might not be able to complete traditional academic classes. Students with severe cognitive disabilities make up about 1 percent of students in Indiana. For that reason, the alternate diploma is not intended to be for all — or even most — students receiving special education services. The majority of Indiana’s students with disabilities earn a Core 40 or general diploma, and having an alternate diploma shouldn’t change that, advocates say.

Indiana education officials wouldn’t necessarily be starting from scratch — a template for this diploma already exists.

Currently, students with severe cognitive disabilities can receive a certificate of completion. Until recently, the certificate was based upon a loosely defined plan that did little more than show a student attended school and met goals on their Individualized Education Programs.

In anticipation of the federal rule change and in an effort to make the credential more meaningful to students and employers, the certificate was revamped last year to more closely align with the state’s Core 40 diploma and state standards. An option for today’s eighth-graders, the new certificate includes specific academic requirements, such as a minimum of four math credits and a final project to prepare students for the workforce, such as an internship.

The changes now mean it can serve as a template as the state board moves ahead with creating an alternate diploma. It’s already been vetted by state education department officials.

The amendment says no more than 1 percent of the state’s students could receive the alternate diploma each year, and it must comply with federal rules. That’s about the same percentage of students who generally receive a certificate of completion. Last year, about 1,086 Indiana students, or 1.3 percent, received a certificate.

Advocates have been split about whether the state should move forward with an alternate diploma. On one hand, more students can be counted toward the graduation rate and earn diplomas. But some are worried that a “special education diploma” might be abused and pushed on students who, with more help, could earn a typical diploma.

Kim Dodson, executive director of The Arc of Indiana, which advocates for people with disabilities, said she worked with Behning on the amendment and is encouraged that the state could have more diploma options for special education students. That said, guardrails are necessary so that it isn’t used improperly, she said.

“We feel very strongly about the 1 percent cap, as we certainly want to make sure schools push students toward the Indiana Diploma with the appropriate distinction,” Dodson said. “Our goal continues to be high standards and a push for a high school diploma so that many opportunities await students who received special education services after high school.”

Indiana's 2018 legislative session

Indiana has thousands of foster kids, but knows little about their education. This bill could change that

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Foster children in Indiana – and across the country – likely won’t graduate from high school, and very few of them will go on to college. But foster children are rarely included in state-level discussions about how Indiana is educating its kids.

The Indiana Department of Education has very little data on how the 30,000 children in foster care perform in school, a group close to the size of the state’s largest school district. Indiana saw the second steepest climb in the nation of foster children between 2012 and 2016, with an increase of 60 percent.

To identify the issues that are holding foster students back, lawmakers and advocates are proposing a bill that that would require the education department and the Department of Child Services to share data on foster students in Indiana. So far, House Bill 1314 has seen broad bipartisan support.

“Youth in foster care really have no one speaking for them,” said Brent Kent, CEO of Indiana Connected By 25, a foster child advocacy group. “The state is their parent … we will see for the first time, foster youth side-by-side with other peer groups and how they are performing.”

The bill, authored by Granger Republican Rep. Dale DeVon, would set up data sharing between the state’s education and child services departments. It would also require that the Indiana State Board of Education release an annual report about foster youth education.

About half the foster children in the country will graduate from high school by age 19, and only about 3 percent go on to complete college, according to a report from the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative. In Indiana, the numbers of children in foster care have swelled in part because of the opioid crisis.

Kent said collecting data is a huge leap forward for Indiana. It doesn’t sound innovative, but few states do it.  Indiana already reports student data separated by race, ethnicity, income level, gender and age, among other factors — if the bill becomes law, foster care status would be included.

“No one ever maliciously leaves out foster youth,” Kent said. “We just never thoughtfully include them.”

The foster care data wouldn’t factor into state letter grades as some other subgroup data does. The department of education testified in favor of the bill.

Demetrees Hutchins, a researcher from Indiana University and a former foster child, said it’s “deplorable” how few foster children make it to college. She said this bill can help state agencies coordinate their work so these students aren’t being ignored.

“Implementing this bill makes those in the child welfare system’s job that much easier. It makes those in the education world’s job that much easier,” Hutchins said. “Because we would know where the problems are … and use that data to inform policy- and decision-making.”

Kent said he’s realistic — he doesn’t think this bill will solve every problem foster children face. But it’s a start. The bill passed the House unanimously and is up for consideration in the Senate in the coming weeks.

“Our goal was just to bring some attention to it,” Kent said. “The work is not done closing the achievement gap for subgroups, but … until we know these things, we can’t address them.”


Indiana's 2018 legislative session

‘I just always thought I was stupid’: Indiana considers early screening for students with dyslexia

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
LeeAnn Bricker, a mom of two children with dyslexia, testifies to lawmakers about the importance of Senate Bill 217, which focuses on dyslexia.

State lawmaker Erin Houchin knew early in her son’s schooling that he struggled to read. But it would be years before she’d know why.

“He would bring papers home and say, ‘I got every answer wrong because I couldn’t read it,’” said Houchin, a Republican senator from Salem.

Her school reassured her that her son was a “typical boy” — that he was smart, and he’d grow out of it. Still, for years, he continued to struggle. Finally, after visits with a specialist two hours from their home, several batteries of tests, and stress over insurance coverage, Houchin’s family found a doctor at Riley Hospital for Children.

“He knew within the first five minutes (my son) had dyslexia because he had a screening process that can tell in a couple minutes,” Houchin said. “There just really is not an adequate screening process; there is not an adequate diagnosis process. Kids are falling through the cracks because they are not getting the right diagnosis.”

Read: What’s your education story: ‘I was too dyslexic to do any of that’

Houchin hopes a bill she is proposing this year, Senate Bill 217, can put the right resources in schools so students get the help they need.

Dyslexia is a learning disability where people have trouble correctly interpreting letters and words when reading or speaking. It could affect as many as one in five people and is frequently passed down genetically. Although dyslexia makes it difficult for students learning to read, it can be managed with the proper strategies and coaching.

Research suggests that gaps in reading early on in elementary school can persist into high school if they are not addressed.

The bill would require all district and charter schools to employ a simple test with parental consent to identify whether students could be at-risk for dyslexia in grades K-2 and report the results to the state department of education. It would also require schools to specially train a reading teacher about dyslexia and educate all teachers about dyslexia by the 2019-20 school year. The state would hire a dyslexia specialist to coordinate efforts.

But the bill also comes with a cost. If more students are diagnosed with dyslexia, they could qualify for special education services, which brings a $2,300 per-student grant from the state, according to estimates from the Legislative Services Agency. Screening, training, and hiring additional staff could also bring extra costs for districts and charter schools.

After passing the Senate unanimously, the bill was amended Tuesday in the House Education Committee to reduce some of the potential costs, by allowing districts and charter schools to share services and seek a waiver from the bill’s requirements for up to a year. However, it’s still unclear exactly how much the proposal could cost schools and how much the state grant would offset.

Indiana has taken several small steps over the years to address dyslexia, including adding a definition for it in state law in 2015 and requiring colleges to train teachers to recognize it in students — but not necessarily how to teach students with it.

But this bill would represent a huge step forward, said Cheryl Clemens, co-leader of Decoding Dyslexia-IN, a group of parents and community members from across the state who want to raise awareness about dyslexia.

Clemens said students often have to wait several years to be diagnosed — a critical amount of time when they can fall behind their peers. As the mother of three children with dyslexia, Clemens was excited when Houchin came to her group about legislation after years of looking for more support.

“We are losing so many children,”  Clemens said. “We are thrilled to have more legislative support.”

According to Decoding Dyslexia, 19 states have comprehensive dyslexia laws, which include provisions for screening, teacher training, pilot programs, or accommodations for students. Only nine states have a statewide dyslexia coordinator.

In her testimony to the Senate Education Committee, Clemens said she routinely encourages families who live near the Indiana-Ohio border to consider schools in Ohio, which has stronger dyslexia laws than Indiana.

“This bill will help to close the gap between Indiana’s current practices and what we know from current research,” Clemens said. “It will also help Indiana to catch up with other states in how we teach reading and other literacy skills.”

LeeAnn Bricker, a Zionsville parent of two children with dyslexia, said her oldest son, Alex, had a hard time reading for years before he was properly diagnosed. Once he finally began working with a tutor in second grade, he made a lot of progress — but he still struggles. Early intervention could change that, she said.

“Alex is currently a struggling freshman in high school who has to work three times as hard as his peers for one-half the gain,” Bricker said in her testimony to lawmakers. “I know the difference early identification and intervention make because what I didn’t know to help Alex, I now know to help my youngest son, Jacob.”

Bricker said when Alex finally learned he was dyslexic, it changed him.

“I just always thought I was stupid,” he told his mother.

“I really can’t handle even one more student suffering a journey like Alex’s,” Bricker said. “Imagine seven years of believing you are stupid.”