Over the last several months, Indiana legislators and policymakers wisely amended the requirements for high school graduation to better reflect the varied and valid pathways that students pursue as adults. Rather than mandating that all students pass the same high-stakes standardized assessments to earn a diploma, students are now free to demonstrate their postsecondary readiness in ways that better reflect their interests and goals.
The urgency for making changes to graduation requirements is best illustrated by declining performance on high school state assessments. Graduation qualifying exams have been administered since 1997, but changes implemented in 2016 resulted in abysmal student results that left schools grappling with the prospect of plummeting graduation rates. Prior to 2016, students needed to pass end-of-course assessments closely aligned to two high school courses, English 10 and Algebra I. In the spring of 2016, these assessments were replaced by the ISTEP+ 10 English and math tests. Both exams proved to be more rigorous due to changes in Indiana’s academic standards and online assessment practices. The chart below displays the percent of students who met the English and math requirements in tenth grade on the first attempt.
Meanwhile, Indiana’s graduation rate since 2012 has averaged 88.75%, a respectable achievement. It’s worth noting that 2018’s graduation results, which would correspond with the first group of students to take the new ISTEP+ Grade 10 exams, have not been published. In other words, we don’t know how the falloff in performance since the 2015-2016 school year has impacted the state’s graduation rate. Individual schools certainly know their own results, and their pressure on policymakers undoubtedly played a key role in drafting and approving more graduation pathways.
Here’s the point so far: Providing students more pathways for graduation is the right thing to do philosophically and morally, but it also solves a self-inflicted problem that was created when the state transitioned to a more rigorous exam in the spring of 2016 and set the thresholds for passing far too high.
So how do these new pathways address the problem and more thoughtfully align with student needs? Let’s begin by examining the three components of a pathway.
Students must complete required coursework. Fortunately for Indiana students, our academic standards are widely-recognized for their quality. An in-depth analysis of Indiana’s standards is available from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. As a whole, this component doesn’t reflect a meaningful change. Rather, it’s an affirmation that a rich and diverse sequence of courses remains beneficial.
Students must demonstrate employability skills by completing a project-based, service-based, or work-based learning experience. This component is both new and smart. When properly implemented, students will have ample choice in the experience they complete. For example, if a student is interested in environmental policy, he might intern at a local non-profit organization focused on sustainability (work-based). Another student who wishes to be an entrepreneur might examine market conditions and create a business plan she will share with the chamber of commerce (project-based). Other students may be motivated to volunteer several hours at a food pantry or homeless shelter (service-based). The possibilities are limitless, and with the right resources and guidance, they invite students to contemplate how their skills and aspirations might be applied in meaningful, productive ways.
Students must demonstrate postsecondary-ready competencies. But what does this mean in practice? In reality, this component represents the most significant change, because it affords students the chance to prove their skill readiness for life after high school in multiple authentic ways, not solely by passing one set of standardized assessments. Passing exams remains important, but now students have options tied to myriad careers. For example, a student pursuing a career requiring a degree from a four-year university may earn high marks on the SAT or ACT. However, if a student wishes to enter the workforce more quickly, she can earn a state- and industry-recognized credential or complete a federally-recognized apprenticeship. Plus, the state will finally appropriately recognize the worthiness of scoring well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), which can help students launch a career in the military. Students can also complete career-technical education (CTE) concentrations in areas such as agriculture, computer science, and engineering.
The flexibility to mix and match ways to fulfill the three components of Indiana’s new graduation pathways will empower students to make more meaningful decisions about their areas of focus in high school. In consultation with their families, teachers, counselors, and other mentors, students will be rewarded for their diverse interests and skills.
So, what challenges are likely to emerge? Like most new initiatives, there will be hurdles to overcome.
Recalibrating Course Offerings. In a perfect world with unlimited resources, schools would offer every CTE concentration, credential, and AP or dual-credit class. The reality is that funds are finite, and perhaps more importantly, so are personnel. Our current teacher shortage only exacerbates this problem. Many schools, especially small- and medium-sized corporations, will not be able to offer every variation of courses and credentials. Of course, this concern has existed for years, but the implementation of new graduation pathways will likely reinvigorate discussions about which courses to offer, who is qualified to teach them, and how many students are likely to enroll. Schools may have to consider collaborating with other districts by offering joint-courses. In addition, virtual options may need to be included, especially for advanced students. Technology makes such collaborations and alternatives more feasible than ever.
Changing Mindsets. For at least a generation, attending a four-year university has been held up as the premiere pathway for attaining financial and social success. As student debt approaches $1.5 trillion and it’s becoming evident that purchasing power for wages has remained stagnant for 40 years, many young adults as well as influential policymakers are rightly reconsidering the value of other postsecondary pursuits. Schools and communities need to deeply reflect on the messages, both direct and implied, they send to students about what it means to be successful.
Tracking Pathways. With so many options available to students, counselors will have an unprecedented amount of information to track: course completion, test scores, learning experiences, and postsecondary goals. Updating paper forms and sharing them with multiple staff members will likely be time-consuming and potentially inaccurate. An online tool designed to facilitate communication between stakeholders while enabling efficient updates could save counselors and administrators time while improving the validity of data later reported to the state.
These challenges are all surmountable, and the promises of Indiana’s new graduation requirements far exceed the logistical snags likely to surface. Individualized high school experiences that recognize the inherent dignity of all careers will benefit students in the near future while ultimately strengthening the health and pride of our Hoosier communities for years to come.