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.”

Indiana graduation pathways

Indiana touts workforce readiness. But it could judge schools by a college prep test.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

Indiana’s Republican leaders have spent the majority of this year’s legislative session highlighting the importance of preparing students for the workforce. Why then, educators ask, is the state planning to use college entrance exams to measure schools?

That apparent contradiction was among the complaints raised Friday by teachers and administrators during a public comment session about Indiana’s proposed A-F grading rules for schools.

“The intent (of A-F grades) has always been to make school performance transparent and easily understood by students, staff, parents and community members,” said Liz Walters, principal at Beech Grove High School. “The proposed accountability rule does anything but that.”

This year, there are a few major proposals that could change how the state measures schools and student learning — plans for a new testing system for all grades, new graduation requirements, and preparations to change A-F grades to comply with new federal laws. Though technically separate, they are all related, and changes to one proposal can affect the others. It’s the different intentions behind these plans, said Walters and other educators, that send mixed signals.

First, Indiana is in the process of creating a new testing system to replace ISTEP, and the high school portion is still undecided. Plans are now in the works through House Bill 1426 to have high-schoolers take a college entrance exam, such as the SAT and ACT, instead of the 10th-grade ISTEP they take now.

Indiana is also creating new “graduation pathways” to replace the current English and math exams students must pass to earn a diploma. The goal, lawmakers and policymakers have said, is to make the criteria students will have to meet more valuable to their post-high school plans, such as earning a technical license or credits for college.

And finally, Indiana, like every state in the country, is re-thinking how it rates schools as a result of new federal education law. Those new federal rules mean the state has to rewrite its A-F grading policy, which includes rules around testing and graduation. The Indiana State Board of Education can use the feedback it gets from public comments to revise its proposed rules before taking a final vote sometime this summer.

At Friday’s meeting, Jeff Butts, superintendent in Wayne Township, said making the high school test worth up to 30 percent of a school’s grade just doesn’t make sense. Exams like the SAT and ACT weren’t designed to measure high school state academic standards, Butts said, and more importantly, of the Indiana students who did take them, 78 percent had average composite scores below the recommended cut-off for college readiness from testing companies. Holding schools to such a standard is unfair, he said.

And when Gov. Eric Holcomb and other legislative leaders have made workforce readiness a central part of their 2018 legislative agendas, he said, it sends a mixed message.

“Why determine 30 percent of a high school’s success on a single exam … designed as a predictor, not indicator, of college success, taken by all kids regardless of the path chosen?” Butts said.

Butts acknowledged that the college entrance exam plan will likely move ahead. Lawmakers are wrapping up the 2018 session next week, and the bill has received support from both houses.

Rep. Bob Behning, who wrote the bill with the college entrance exam proposal, said the change would help eliminate the many test retakes that occured with the current system. It also, he has told policymakers, could prove more useful and relevant for students than a state-specific content area exam. State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick has also supported the move to a college entrance test.

Indiana’s focus on workforce readiness is part of a broader national push to ensure students are prepared for life after high school, where college is just one of several options.

Yet the state’s policy changes have gone back and forth between prioritizing the importance of rigorous college-level coursework and freedom from regulations that can make it hard for less academically inclined students to be successful. But ultimately, federal law requires a uniform measure of student learning — in Indiana’s case, A-F grades.

Educators’ other concern with the A-F grading proposal was that it no longer factors in high school students’ improvement on tests and reduces the its importance for K-8 schools.

“Capping that growth really removes the part of the great job our teachers do in the classroom,” said Todd Terrill, a superintendent from Richmond. “I truly believe that growth is the greatest indicator of academic success and accomplishment.”

Overall, about 15 people showed up for the Friday morning meeting. Richard Arkanoff, superintendent in Center Grove, argued the low attendance reflected concerns from educators that their voices aren’t being heard. He mentioned the state board’s vote in December to approve the graduation pathways plan, where dozens of educators spent hours speaking against the sweeping proposal.

“I don’t remember the last time, and I’ve been doing this for 20 years, that that many people spoke against something and it fell on deal ears,” Arkanoff said. “People are feeling as if they are not going to be heard, so why bother?”

The state board is scheduled to hold another A-F grade rule public comment session from 4-7 p.m. on Monday, March 19, at Ivy Tech’s Illinois Fall Creek Center.

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.