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The Journal Gazette


Sunday, November 12, 2017 1:00 am

Graduation rules may get tougher

Critics fear spike in dropouts

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

At a glance

For students to graduate starting in 2023 they would have to meet three key elements:

1) Earn a high school diploma

2) Complete a project, service or work-based learning experience. • Examples include a research or course-related project; a meaningful civic or volunteer experience; play sports in high school; complete an internship; work an after-school job.

3) Show postsecondary competency

• Examples include earning an honors diploma; reaching certain college-ready benchmark scores on ACT or SAT; completing a credential, certification or apprenticeship; maintaining C average in at least six high school career-technical courses; maintaining C average in AP or other specialty courses.

INDIANAPOLIS – A diploma wouldn't be enough for high school students to graduate starting with the class of 2023.

Students would also have to demonstrate workforce skills and that they are ready for college as part of proposed graduation pathway options before the State Board of Education.

This could be accomplished through activities ranging from high scores on college entrance exams and completing an apprenticeship to working an after-school job or participating in a volunteer experience.

The added rigor has stoked fears that the graduation rate will plummet and local schools will be overworked tracking the requirements.

“If kids start dropping out of school ... or get disenfranchised about furthering their education ... that can be a real problem,” said Steve Yager, a former Allen County superintendent and state board member.

“There could be unintended consequences of what we are about to decide.

“They don't know what's going to hit them and neither do the parents.”

But others see the move as necessary to ensure students are ready for either college or the workplace.

Mark Melnick, with Benteler Automotive in Goshen, spoke in support of the pathways – especially those encouraging training for jobs that don't require a college education.

He said that when looking at students emerging from Indiana schools one reason for the lack of skilled workers is an overemphasis on the college track. He especially lauded the apprenticeship recommendation.

“Middle school needs to plant the seed that there are honorable and well-paid jobs that do not require a college degree,” Melnick said.

The Graduation Pathways Panel voted 13-1 last week to forward the recommendations to the state board, which is expected to consider the issue in December or January. The legislature would also have to make changes in law to implement the program that would affect next year's eighth-graders.

The group met 10 times and worked with 100 collaborators across all sectors. There were five hours of public comment and more than 30 hours of discussion.

Byron Ernest, a state board member who chaired the panel, said the state needs a “diploma plus” system and that the plus needs to be relevant, meaningful and rigorous. He said the proposal has a lot of built-in flexibility and noted that students can fulfill each pathway in several ways.

For instance, all students would have to complete a project, service or work-based learning experience. They could accomplish this by volunteering or completing an internship, to name a few options.

Another requirement is to show they are ready for some sort of post-secondary education or training. This could be accomplished by hitting certain scores on college entrance exams or earning an industry certification, such as in welding. 

Local districts can create their own pathway but the State Board of Education would have to approve.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick, a member of the pathways panel, voted for the recommendation but reserved her right to oppose it later. She is wary about the impact on schools and her staff provided some analysis of the proposal last week.

They looked at the class of 2016 – 79,116 students – and found that nearly 10,000 would have failed to meet one of the pathway requirements for the college competency section. That would have dropped Indiana's 2016 Indiana's graduation rate to 76.5 percent instead of 89.1 percent.

The Indiana Department of Education also attempted to evaluate the projected costs of implementing the pathways – with the state paying for specialized Advanced Placement courses and college entrance exams for all students.

The cost over current funding was estimated at $12.6 million.

State Board member David Freitas said there is a “quantum limitation” on the analysis since the pathways weren't in place and schools weren't focusing on meeting them.

John Keller, on staff with the education department, said the data is “imperfect but instructive.” He said the agency isn't saying there is a problem with the proposal but members should be aware of concerns on the impact and cost.

Freitas called the recommendations a good fusion between soft skills and local control, noting there are state resources that can be placed forward to help local districts.

Debra Faye Williams-Robbins – chief of student, family and community engagement at Fort Wayne Community Schools – testified last week about the need for time and funding to implement the proposals.

She stressed that “students come from all walks of life and we have to be able to equitably access these” pathways. Another speaker noted that in rural districts transportation for an apprenticeship or internship might not be available.

Others worried that simply tracking the requirements for each student will be a bureaucratic hassle and result in merely checking off boxes rather than focusing on the student.

“We want to spend our time on kids. If this becomes all about paperwork then we've lost those minutes that we could have spent actually working with them,” said State Board Member Cari Whicker, a principal from Wells County.

She stressed that just because she is asking questions doesn't mean she is against the proposal. She just wants to do her due diligence.