Grad Rate Dilemma: Legislation could penalize schools unfairly

Shortly after members of the class of 2017 received their diplomas, turned their tassels and left their high schools for the last time as a class, school corporations received news that the way Indiana calculates graduation rates could change again thanks to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Signed into law in 2015, ESSA replaces the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation enacted in 2002. Presently, Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Jennifer McCormick, and her staff, along with multiple stakeholders, are trying to figure out how to interpret ESSA’s regulations and marry them with our current school accountability structures.

On June 30 of this year, Indiana’s Department of Education publicized a first draft of its proposal.

Although there are multiple changes for school corporations to review and respond to during the review period, the one that jumped out immediately to high schools was the federal mandate requiring states to report graduation rates uniformly and for states to use the federally reported rate as the rate used to calculate the school grade.

The biggest questions for Indiana at this time are whether or not a student who earns the General Diploma will be deemed a graduate and, therefore, count toward a school’s graduation rate for the cohort.

If not, with what class will the change take place? Believe it or not, there is speculation that the change could take place with the class of 2017, which means the rules could change after the game has been played.

As I’ve mentioned before in my articles, I am all for educational change as long as it meets two criteria: one, have we thoughtfully considered and researched the choice; two, will changing have a positive impact on students? Ultimately, I always ask the question, “Is this in the best interest of the student?”

In reviewing ESSA and Indiana’s interpretation of graduation rate at this time, I have to wonder if excluding General Diploma recipients from the graduation rate is really in the best interest of students.

Typically, the reason a student doesn’t earn the Core 40 diploma is because he or she is unable to pass a class like Algebra II. If all students had the desire or ability to attend either a two- or four-year college or university, I could understand why having these classes would be a must.

However, there is a small population of students in every high school in the United States who will never earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree — and that’s OK.

Students who want to pursue an apprenticeship or choose to enter the workforce because they’ve earned certifications from a career or technical program but didn’t earn a Core 40 diploma have every right to call themselves high school graduates if Indiana keeps the General Diploma in place.

High schools should also not be penalized for preparing students for a variety of post-secondary options.

Both Greenfield Central and Mt. Vernon school corporations will be initiating the Governor’s Work Ethic Certificate program with the class of 2018. If the state wanted to stipulate that a General Diploma would count toward the graduation rate only if a student paired it with a Work Ethic Certificate, I could support that change.

Students who earn a Work Ethic Certificate must demonstrate they are workplace-ready by maintaining strong attendance, demonstrating the ability to problem-solve and be a positive team member, as well as proving they are respectful and persistent — all skills that Indiana’s employers are clamoring for in their new hires.

What I can’t support, however, is changing the rules after the fact and, in the process, devaluing the hard work of everyone who helped the class of 2017 graduate.

Kim Kile is a director of school counseling in a Hancock County school district. She can be reached at kimskile@gmail.com.