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8/1/2017 5:07:00 PM
Hoosier high school education rates might sink with federal changes

Sue Loughlin, Tribune-Star

The U.S. Department of Education says Indiana must change how it determines its graduation rates.

The changes — which no longer count the general diploma — would adversely impact many Indiana schools, including high schools in Vigo County.

Now, Jennifer McCormick, the state superintendent of public instruction, is enlisting help from Indiana’s congressional delegation in resolving the disagreement with the federal government.

Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), all states must calculate graduation rates based upon the diploma earned by the “preponderance of students,” as well as more rigorous diplomas.

In Indiana, that includes the Core 40 diploma, Core 40 with Academic Honors diploma, Core 40 with Technical Honors diploma and the International Baccalaureate diploma.

But no longer included is the general diploma, which is awarded to about 8,000 Hoosier students each graduating year.

The change “puts Indiana in a concerning national disadvantage. Indiana’s graduation rate will be greatly impacted,” McCormick wrote to congressional representatives. “For example, the 2016 cohort group will fall from 89.1 percent to 76.5 percent. This percentage does not reflect well upon our state and could negatively impact our economy.”

The state has much room to improve its overall graduation rate, she wrote, and it is committed to that improvement.

“The drastic drops in graduation rates statewide and at the local district level will also negatively impact school accountability grades,” McCormick wrote.

“This drastic drop in graduation rate due to a simple, federal definition change will cause confusion, reflect poorly upon all of our communities and our state, and could result in decreased emphasis placed upon those students who may not achieve at least a Core 40 Diploma,” McCormick continued.

The state has been communicating with the U.S. Department of Education about its concerns, “but we would welcome your assistance,” she wrote to congressional representatives.

Among those districts that could be adversely affected is the Vigo County School Corp.

With the new graduation calculation rate, the accountability letter grades of Vigo County high schools, as well as other Indiana high schools, will likely drop, said Karen Goeller, VCSC deputy superintendent. The district letter grade will also likely drop.

In 2016, Vigo County awarded general diplomas to about 17 percent of seniors. Many of those students attended the McLean Education Center and Booker T. Washington Alternative School, which awarded 62 percent and 64 percent general diplomas, respectively.

“These schools have missions to serve students with multiple life challenges, and earning a general diploma is certainly a positive milestone,” Goeller stated in an email. “The alternative schools are working hard to promote Core 40 diplomas, which give students more college and career choices, but for many non-traditional students, earning a general diploma is a significant accomplishment that deserves recognition.” Many special education students earn general diplomas because of the additional and more difficult math, science, and social studies requirements of Core 40 diplomas. “These students have identified challenges and many have certainly worked hard to earn general diplomas,” she stated. “This method of calculating graduation rates does not recognize their achievements.”

Adam Baker, Indiana Department of Education press secretary, said the state’s discussion with U.S. Department of Education continues.

“At a minimum, we are hoping that the new calculation that does not include the general diploma be phased in beginning with this year’s cohort of 9th graders,” Baker said. “Dr. McCormick is continuing to negotiate with the U.S. Department of Education to reach a good solution for Indiana.” The general diploma will still be awarded and is still considered an official diploma, officials say. About 30 percent of Indiana students who earn a general diploma are special- needs students, according to School Matters, a K-12 education blog.

The new federal education law — the Every Student Succeeds Act — calls for uniform calculation of graduate rates across the states. “But that seems unlikely to happen, because state graduation requirements are anything but uniform,” School Matters reported July 19.

According to data from the Education Commission of the States, state graduation requirements vary from 26 to 50 high school semester credits. Some states, like Massachusetts and Colorado, leave it to local school districts to set their requirements. Indiana, which requires 40 credits for Core 40 and 47 credits for its honors diplomas, is near the middle, School Matters reported

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