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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, July 16, 2017 1:00 am

Grad rates, grades to fall

Federal changes in interpretation called 'illogical'

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – Local schools will see a drop in graduation rates – and related controversial A-F school grades – under a new interpretation by the U.S. Department of Education.

The news surprised education officials last week when Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick sent notice that the general diploma received by 8,600 students statewide last year would no longer count as graduating in the federal statistic.

“We understand this isn't the state's fault,” said Bluffton High School Principal Steve Baker. “But we seem to be the recipients of frustrating news. We have to continue to adjust.”

A state board member deemed the new guideline “completely illogical.”

And Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, said the State Board of Education or legislature needs to step in and “make this work for all of our boys and girls.”

McCormick lamented that the new Every Student Succeeds Act was supposed to be more flexible yet the feds aren't bending.

She warned that some schools might see their graduation rates drop into the 30 percent to 40 percent level.

“As a state we want to keep the rigor up but it does us no good in the meantime to have high schools all identified as F's,” she said.

ESSA – the revamped version of No Child Left Behind – says a regular high school diploma is the standard high school diploma awarded to the preponderance of students in a state that is fully aligned with the state's standards. It does not include a general equivalency diploma, certificate of completion, certificate of attendance, or any other similar or lesser credential.

The regular diploma in Indiana was deemed by the feds to be the Core40 diploma earned by 35,179 students last year. Honors diplomas also count because they use Core40 as a base and add more stringent requirements.

Core40 generally has more science and math courses, and was implemented to direct and prepare students for college. It is considered the default diploma but parents and students can opt for a general diploma.

The number of students receiving a general diploma has dropped in recent years but still accounted for about 12 percent of students last year. It is still a valid diploma in Indiana and can be used to get a job, for instance. But it won't count in the graduation rate.

Those receiving general diplomas sometimes are special needs students, or those focusing on vocational training.

“One class can be the difference between the two diplomas,” said Chris Himsel, superintendent at Northwest Allen County Schools. He noted that Algebra 2 and the integrated chemistry and physics classes most commonly hold students back from achieving a Core40 diploma.

“Algebra 2 is designed for four-year universities. It's not designed for everyday life,” he said.

NACS' graduation rate was 96.7 percent in the 2015-16 school year, with 52 general diplomas. He calculated the district's graduation rate would drop to 89 percent.

Other schools could see much larger decreases. And Baker noted that any school with a federal graduation rate of less than 67 percent is placed on probation/watch.

Back in the early 2000s, the Core40 was pushed with a nod from the business community to improve student skills in college and the workforce.

The Indiana General Assembly made completion of Core40 a graduation requirement for all students beginning with those who entered high school in the fall of 2007. The legislation includes an opt-out provision for parents who determine their students could receive a greater benefit from the general diploma. The legislation also made Core40 a minimum college admission requirement for the state's public four-year universities beginning in the fall of 2011.

Krista Stockman, spokeswoman for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the district was taken aback by the change in definition.

“We look at Core40 as the default. If a student is not going to get that for some reason there is a safety net or general diploma but by and large that shouldn't be our target,” she said.

FWCS' rate could drop to 85 percent from 89.2 percent.

The graduation rate also has a significant impact on a schools state accountability grade – where each receives a label of A to F. It is one of just a few barometers used to measure success, including the ISTEP test.

Any school with a 90 percent or higher graduation rate gets full points for that section. The change in calculation means many schools will no longer receive full credit and will see a drop in the grade.

Himsel said, “I don't even pay attention to the A to F stuff. It's so not related to what we do for kids it doesn't mean anything anymore.”

While Baker agrees that many have lost confidence in that system it is still reported in the media and can cause harm to districts - especially along borders with competing schools allowing transfer students.

Downs said the board or lawmakers will likely need to revamp the diploma system – choosing a diploma with minimum standards and having students earn certificates on top of that. But some worry that will lower the overall standards.

McCormick said her staff is studying the issue and hopes to offer suggestions soon, acknowledging there are tough decisions to make.

nkelly@jg.net