Future of Work

As Indiana schools try to make every graduate count, educators fear struggling students will lose out

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every year, Kristie Keating sits down with each of her senior special education students, together with their parents, teachers, and other specialists, to discuss the student’s plans for graduation.

But this year, Keating, the director of special education at Pike High School, will have to consider the fact that her school could be penalized if the student graduates with the less rigorous general diploma instead of the Core 40.

“I have a student this year who’s going to be a senior, his parents were told when he was in elementary school that he would never graduate from high school,” Keating said. Now, he’s almost ready to graduate with the general diploma. Keating rankles at the thought of asking his mother if he should be on a more difficult graduation plan.

Keating and other educators are in this dilemma because new federal rules have removed the general diploma from counting toward the graduation rate. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must calculate their graduation rate based on the diploma received by most students – the Core 40 diploma in Indiana.

The new policy forces the state to confront a long-standing conflict in Indiana education: wanting high schools to prepare students for the increasing demands of college and careers, and wanting to make sure struggling students have opportunities after graduation.

Students who aren’t able to complete the Core 40 diploma can still find their way to a job or community college through the general diploma. The general diploma is the state’s least rigorous graduation plan, earned by 12 percent of the state’s graduates.

The Core 40 diploma, which is the default for Indiana students, requires an extra year each of science, social studies, and math; with even more coursework, students can earn a Core 40 Honors diploma as well. Students and parents have to opt out of the Core 40 diploma in order to receive the general diploma.

The extra requirements in the Core 40 program make the general diploma the only accessible graduation pathway for some students with intellectual disabilities, Keating said.

Of course, the change in how graduation rates are calculated doesn’t mean that general diplomas will disappear – but schools will certainly try to steer more students to the Core 40. If they don’t, their graduation rates will plummet, and because the graduation rate is part of the state’s A-F grade calculation, those school ratings would fall as well.

Pike High School principal Troy Inman said Pike might have to reduce course offerings and teachers in its Career and Technical Education program – classes where students could learn skills in cooking or air conditioning maintenance, or earn a barber shop license – in order to increase academic offerings. Students who switch from the general diploma to the Core 40 track would spend less of their class time in electives, and more in extra science, math, and social studies classes.

Most students could do both, Inman said, but students who struggle academically might have to retake a harder math class or get extra support in order to pass the Core 40 requirements, leaving even less time for career-focused electives which may be more useful to them.

The Core 40 classes are “going to have to be their only focus, and I don’t know if that’s the best thing for these students,” Inman said.

Keating said she and her staff may advise some students to stay in high school for an additional year to complete the Core 40 diploma. Schools get partial credit in their A-F grades for students who take five years to get a diploma.

It is still unclear whether the new graduation rate will be calculated for the graduating class of 2018, or for the incoming freshman class, said Adam Baker, spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Education. Educators say that it may be too late to prepare students who are graduating next spring for the Core 40’s requirements.

As schools grapple with reducing the number of general diplomas they give out and making the Core 40 more attainable, some state officials say they should have already been moving in this direction.

Rep. Bob Behning, an Indianapolis Republican, introduced a bill earlier this year that would have removed the general diploma from the graduation rate, as the ESSA plan does now. He is concerned about high schools that give out general diplomas to large portions of their students, like Brown County, where 40 percent of last year’s graduates received the general diploma.

 

Top 10 Marion County high schools, by percent of graduates receiving the general diploma in 2016

SCHOOL DISTRICT GENERAL DIPLOMA
Decatur Township School for Excellence Decatur Township 59%
John Marshall Community High School Indianapolis Public Schools 30%
Pike High School Pike Township 24%
North Central High School Washington Township 21%
Southport High School Perry Township 20%
Arlington Community High School Indianapolis Public Schools 18%
Warren Central High School Warren Township 18%
Lawrence Central High School Lawrence Township 18%
Speedway Senior High School Speedway Schools 18%
Decatur Central High School Decatur Township 17%

 

Behning fears that students have been counseled into the general diploma track, even if they could do more. “You want kids to pursue the most rigorous high school track they possibly can,” Behning said. “You want them to have the most opportunities to be successful.”

Colleges and universities are asking more of students than the general diploma, or even the Core 40, can provide, Behning said. Of the high school graduates who go on to attend a public university in Indiana, 20 percent of Core 40 diploma earners and half of general diploma earners ended up needing remediation in math or English, according to the Commission for Higher Education.

Schools can’t afford to keep graduating unprepared students, warned commission member Jason Bearce, as more careers demand a college education and even non-college careers require more skills.

“What employers are asking of their employees is very similar to what colleges are asking of students,” Bearce said. “The standard of what students are being asked to do are being raised.”

However, Keating said that doesn’t line up with what she sees in her school community. Some students are better off learning skills or getting a technical license than struggling through an extra year of math. Some of them even end up earning more money than her students who go to college.

Behning acknowledged that there are some students who wouldn’t be able to graduate without the general diploma. But only a third of students who received general diplomas in 2016 were special education students.

On top of that, only a small portion of special education students have a disability that prevents them from earning a Core 40 diploma, said Kim Dodson of Arc of Indiana, a nonprofit advocating for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

However, she said, those who can’t earn a Core 40 still deserve to graduate and be counted.

“Every student should count, every student should matter,” Dodson said. “Every student should have the opportunity to receive a diploma and have those opportunities after high school.”

Apart from cognitive disability, there are a host of difficult circumstances that could prevent a student from being able to get the Core 40 diploma, said Warren Central High School director of counseling Bre Brown – suffering from chronic illness, becoming a parent, or dealing with traumatic home lives, for example.

Brown said schools and students shouldn’t be punished when they’re faced with difficult circumstances such as these.

“It’s a little disheartening to think that a child who is able to leave high school with a skill or with the amount of knowledge to be able to get a full-time, good-paying job or an associate’s degree,  is somehow going to be held against the school system just because there were struggles in certain areas,” Brown said.

Dodson and Brown worry about how schools themselves will react. Brown said she fears that this change might signal to two-year institutions such as Ivy Tech that students with a general diploma aren’t good enough to admit. Dodson is also concerned that high schools will use this as an excuse not to admit special education students into their schools.

“We already know that a lot of schools say they don’t have the resources to teach special ed students, and we don’t want to give them any more reason,” Dodson said.

Dodson also said that removing general diplomas from the graduation rate may cause high schools to give less priority to general diploma students, when it comes to resources and quality teachers.

“Usually what counts is what’s measured,” Dodson said. “… We get it. We get that (schools) want their graduation rates to be as high as possible. We would rather work with them to make sure the achievements of special education students still matter and count.”

Pike principal Troy Inman said it was inevitable that schools would shift their focus away from the general diploma.

“If it doesn’t count toward your graduation rate, it’s going to hurt your accountability, and that’s your grade and how your school is perceived,” he said.

Indiana’s A-F accountability ratings don’t just affect a school’s reputation with parents and students. They affect teacher bonuses, and schools that have F ratings for more than four years can be taken over by the state. ESSA also requires states to intervene in schools whose graduation rates drop below 67 percent.

The discussion about the new graduation rate isn’t quite over yet – the Indiana Department of Education is still talking with the federal government about finding a way to keep the general diploma in the graduation rate. McCormick wrote to the state’s U.S. congressional representatives on July 24, asking for their help.

One solution would be to utilize a provision of ESSA that allows students with severe disabilities to earn an alternative diploma. But Dodson and Behning both were concerned that schools would end up pushing all their special education students into that diploma track, even those that could earn the Core 40.

Another solution would be to change the state diploma structure by establishing a single diploma, with additional certifications for students who complete the Core 40 or Honors requirements. This could be done by the state legislature, but would fly in the face of the state’s attempts to shift toward a more rigorous default diploma.

“As a state you want to keep that rigor up. You want to keep up that academic capacity,” state superintendent Jennifer McCormick said in July. “It does us no good though in the meantime to have high schools that are all identified as Fs. It doesn’t benefit students, it doesn’t benefit communities.”

Whatever the outcome of these proposals, in the meantime, educators like Brown will have to strike a balance, between what the state demands and what students can achieve.

“We will certainly do our due diligence to do what’s right for our students and for our school system,” Brown said. “But it’s definitely going to make it more challenging for us.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

EXCELSIOR

22,000 New Yorkers will get new college scholarship from the state after 94,000 applied

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

After a long wait, the official tally of New York’s new free-college recipients is here.

Nearly 22,000 New York state students qualified for the first round of the state’s new “Excelsior Scholarship,” which provides free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools, state officials announced Sunday. Another 23,000 students who applied for the scholarship will receive free tuition through existing state and federal financial aid, which they may not have sought out were it not for the Excelsior application process.

The numbers are good news for students who will receive more tuition assistance. However, the number of recipients is a fraction of the approximately 94,000 students who applied, highlighting a persistent criticism that the scholarship’s reach may not live up to its hype.

“A college degree now is what a high school diploma was 30 years ago – it is essential to succeed in today’s economy,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in a statement. “Our first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarship is designed so more New Yorkers go to college tuition-free and receive the education they deserve to reach their full potential.”

With the Excelsior Scholarship, New York became the first state in the country to cover tuition costs at both two and four-year institutions, putting it at the center of a national conversation about college affordability. The rollout had all the trappings of a major announcement: Cuomo unveiled the program standing next to free-college champion Senator Bernie Sanders and signed it sitting next to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

But behind the hype, the state expected many applicants would not qualify because scholarship recipients are required to graduate in four years, with little wiggle room to fall behind, and must maintain decent grades. Students are also required to live and work in New York state after graduation for the same number of years they received the award.

The scholarship has also been criticized for catering mainly to middle-class families. Because it is a last-dollar program, students must first use existing state or federal aid, then Excelsior will make up any additional gaps in tuition funding. Many low-income students already qualify for free tuition through state and federal aid, leaving higher-income students mostly likely to benefit from the state program. (This year, students whose families make less than $100,000 per year can qualify and that number will increase to $125,000 by 2019.)

The state is already hailing the program as a success, saying that with the addition of the scholarship, 53 percent of full-time CUNY and SUNY students — or about 210,000 New Yorkers — can now attend college tuition-free. There are also more than 6,000 applications pending final approval, which means the total number of applicants is likely to rise.

The new scholarship drew wide interest from families and students. The state extended the application deadline because of a surge in applicants, which jumped from 75,000 in midsummer to 94,000 by the final deadline.

Students who did not receive the scholarship will see a $200 tuition hike this year, bringing the total cost to $6,670 per year for in-state students.