For most students, a high school diploma is the first of many credentials needed to advance in college, the skilled trades or military service. For some students facing challenges, it can be the ticket to a job and independence. Indiana's general diploma allows those students the opportunity to succeed to the best of their abilities, but a new federal interpretation of graduation rates devalues general diplomas.
It's another disappointing twist in a decades-long battle over what a high school diploma should represent. It's also a clue the new Every Student Succeeds Act isn't going to deliver on its promise of more flexibility for the states.
Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick recently advised schools that students earning the general diploma will no longer count toward a school's graduation rate. With 8,612 general diplomas awarded statewide last year – or 12 percent of all diplomas – their exclusion will mean falling graduation rates for Indiana schools.
Most Indiana students earn an Honors diploma or a Core 40 diploma, but state law wisely makes a general diploma available to students who fall short of passing the required Core 40 courses. Last year, the general diploma graduates included 2,561 special-needs students with Individualized Education Plans, according to the Indiana Department of Education.
Superintendent Chris Himsel of Northwest Allen County Schools noted other deserving graduates:
“I believe many of the general diploma graduates have IEPs or are career/technical students who likely missed a Core 40 or Technical Honors Diploma by one or two courses (most likely Algebra 2, Integrated Chemistry and Physics, or Economics), encountered medical issues which caused them to focus on the bare minimum to graduate in four years because of time missed to receive medical treatment, or persevered to graduation, instead of dropping out, with the help of many resources and overcame obstacles that most of us have never encountered firsthand, or even imagined,” he said in an email.
It's important for Indiana to offer a general diploma option because not all school officials are as sympathetic to students with special circumstances. Disability advocates know there is a danger of some students being written off if schools, mindful of accountability regulations based on graduation rates, steer students to a certificate of completion instead of a diploma. A 2016 law requires schools to inform parents of all available options for students because some didn't realize until graduation day that a certificate of completion is not equivalent to a diploma.
Indiana policymakers have squabbled for years over graduation definitions, but the current designations strike a good balance. They satisfy accountability demands without ignoring the real challenges some students face. If general diploma recipients aren't counted as graduates, however, graduation rates will fall. If the federal guidelines had been in effect for the 2016 school year, the statewide graduation rate would have fallen from 89 percent to 78 percent.
ESSA, the federal education law that replaced the widely criticized No Child Left Behind Act, was supposed to give states more flexibility, but the opposite appears to be happening. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a primary author of the federal legislation, complained last week after an undersecretary to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said it was the agency's responsibility to set achievement standards for states because the new law did not.
“We tried to liberate them with this new law, and now we have language coming out from the Department of Education that suggests they better slow down because the department is going to start telling them what to do again, playing 'Mother may I?' ” the Tennessee Republican told Education Week. “And I want to stop that before it starts.”
In the meantime, state Superintendent McCormick's staff is examining the graduation rate issue and will offer recommendations to the State Board of Education. It will be a shame if pressure from the federal government forces Indiana to discontinue a diploma track giving special-needs students and others their best hope for the future.