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State puts brakes on plan to revamp high school diplomas

March 16, 2016

After almost two years of work attempting to overhaul the state’s high school diplomas, the debate has been shelved.

Sarah O’Brien, a first grade teacher from Avon and the co-chairwoman of the Indiana State Board of Education, said after two hours of public testimony Wednesday that the board couldn’t make a decision without more data and information on the types of diplomas students will earn when graduating this year.

“I think there are a lot of good things in the diplomas,” O’Brien said. “But our schools and our kids and our teachers are tired of change for the sake of change.”

The board overwhelmingly approved the plan to halt work on changing the diplomas, an effort led in part by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz. She abstained from the vote to put the effort on hold while all the other board members voted yes. Ritz said she wasn’t championing any particular plan for diploma changes.

New requirements in math, fine arts and specific career “pathways” were sticking points for board members. The latest Indiana Department of Education proposal differed just slightly from what the state board discussed last fall. At that time, vocal opposition from parents and educators led the board to create a new panel to revise the proposal. Ritz said changes to math requirements were a critical issue.

“Mathematics from the very, very, very beginning has been the topic of conversation,” Ritz said. “We have to really take a look at that information (from 2016 graduates), and I think that’s what the board wants to do. They want to see the real data before we make any changes.”

On one side of the diploma debate are educators who want to keep the current system. Some have told board members they fear students could be pigeonholed too early into career tracks or barred from earning a diploma if they can’t pass all the required math classes.

“A diploma is not a checklist, and therefore adding (math) classes won’t fix that problem,” said Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School. “I believe that better math is more important than more math.”

Those pushing for changes include college officials and business leaders who say they too often see Indiana high school graduates arrive unprepared for college courses or on-the-job demands.

“As a state I believe we’re failing to adequately prepare thousands of our young people,” said Pam Horne, a vice provost at Purdue University. “We don’t have have a college access problem in Indiana, we have a college completion problem.”

But it hasn’t been that long since diplomas were last updated, some educators testified to the state board today.

The state’s diplomas were changed for 2012-13 freshmen requiring them to earn six math credits in high school and take at least one math course each year. The first group of students to be held to those new standards will graduate this spring, so it’s not yet clear what effect the changes will have. Board members want to see if the new requirement reduces the number of graduates who need help to brush up their skills by taking basic level courses in college.

“I think many of us are very concerned that 2016 will be the first group of students graduating with our current diploma structure,” said Kim Dodson, executive director of the Arc of Indiana, a group that advocates on behalf of people with special needs. “We can’t recommend changes at this time until we see data.”

And there’s no mandate that the diplomas must be changed at all. Rather, the bill passed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2014, which launched the debate, merely called for a review of diploma types. Any changes had to be presented to the board, which has full authority to decide whether or not to adopt any proposed changes.

The latest version of the plan would let students starting high school in 2019 pursue three diploma options instead of the current four — a “core 44” diploma, an “honors” diploma and an updated “general” diploma. The four existing options are general, core 40, core 40 honors and career and technical honors diplomas.

The newest proposal is different from what was presented last fall mainly in how the programs are structured, with some changes to credits and courses required. The core 44 draft diploma — which most Indiana students would be expected to complete if the plan were approved — replaced the earlier “college- and career-ready” diploma draft. The versions remain very similar with a few simplifications to the math class “sequences” and clearer language around how students may use elective credits.

Some educators say the suggestions for electives could limit students in the future from exploring their interests, as electives are supposed to allow them to do.

“We have flexibility under the current system that allows our students to tailor in their area of interest or need,” said Tom Zobel, principal at Whiteland Community High School.

The new general diploma draft would drop from an eight-credit math option in the “workforce ready” draft to six credits. It also loosens an earlier capstone class requirement, making it instead “strongly encouraged.”

Some educators worried that the additional requirements in the “workforce ready” diploma could be barriers for students with special needs who already struggle to complete high school.

Before the legislature made changes earlier this month, a loophole in state law allowed schools to choose which diploma types they offered. To try to boost student skills, some high schools stopped offering general diplomas. But students and educators said that meant some kids who might have qualified for a general diploma but couldn’t meet the requirements for a core 40 diploma were left without a credential, blocking them from jobs, college or training programs.

But that changed when House Bill 1219 was passed with broad support earlier this month by the Indiana General Assembly. The bill requires all schools to offer all state diplomas to students.

Even after more work to refine the proposal, some board members said they still simply weren’t persuaded by the new plan.

“I don’t think I’m any closer to being able to make a decision on this than I was a month ago,” O’Brien said.

Passing ISTEP emphasized in A-F formula vote

Separately, the state board approved a proposal to determine how student test score improvement will factor into school A-F grades.

Once results from the 2016 ISTEP are calculated, the state will use a chart, called a “growth table,” to determine how many “growth points” a student has earned. Points are awarded based on an evaluation of whether a student’s score improved, fell or did not change from the previous year.

Under the proposed table adopted unanimously by board members, students who make one year of growth and pass the test receive 100 “growth points,” while students who make one year of growth but don’t pass receive 75 points. The other option would’ve given both groups of students 100 points.

For now, the different models don’t result in vastly different numbers of As, Bs, Cs, Ds or Fs.

“With 100 points it’s indicating … you’re passing and staying on track,” Cynthia Roach, the state board’s testing director, said. “On the old model those kids never received credit. (With 75 points) you’re still doing OK, but it’s not enough.”

Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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