New diploma requirements could have big impact on Indiana college-going students

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By Aleksandra Appleton, Chalkbeat Indiana

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat Indiana.

A plan to refocus Indiana’s graduation requirements on work experiences would eliminate a diploma linked to college-going without providing a clear alternative for students seeking postsecondary education.

The proposal would effectively eliminate the Academic Honors diploma option, the diploma that’s linked to students headed to college and the second most popular track among Indiana graduates. Around 22,000 Indiana students received the honors diploma last year, according to Indiana Department of Education data.

At the same time, the state might not have enough work-based learning opportunities to meet the needs of students who choose to pursue the new advanced diploma.

Before making changes, counselors and members of Indiana’s business community say the state must carefully consider the implementation of the new requirements, including ensuring that enough jobs and internships are available for students who will need them.

Data from the Commission on Higher Education shows that students who earn an honors diploma are more likely to go to college and less likely to need remediation when they get there: 86% of Academic Honors diploma earners from the high school class of 2020 went to college, compared to less than 40% of students who earned a regular Core 40 diploma.

Education department officials have characterized the proposed new diplomas, first announced in March, as a move to offer students more flexibility in high school by allowing them to choose courses and skills that are relevant to their future goals.

It’s part of a Republican-led push to “reinvent high school” as college-going rates in Indiana have declined and stagnated since COVID.

“We have an incredible opportunity to help every student find their purpose, know their value and understand the possibilities for their life’s path. This means allowing students the flexibility to experience work-based learning, increase their educational attainment by earning a credential and personalize their journey to achieve their unique goals,” said Secretary of Education Katie Jenner in a statement in March.

But it has met with significant pushback from educators, who spoke for hours at the May State Board of Education meeting, asking officials to reconsider the diploma proposal, or slow down its implementation.

“I beseech you to develop a diploma option that highlights college readiness for any student who desires it, not because everyone needs to go to college, but because some do,” said West Noble High School counselor Kelli Brown at the May meeting. “We need both highly educated professionals and highly skilled professionals in Indiana. Students following an academic path deserve their own recognition and cannot find workplace-bound experiences of value in every community.”

Officials plan to announce an update on the proposal at the State Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, according to a department spokesperson.

The Indiana State Teachers Association has encouraged its members to testify on the proposed new requirements at that meeting.

Some students may be ‘losing out’

Under the proposal, the state will offer two diplomas: A Graduates Prepared to Succeed Diploma, which has fewer math and social studies requirements than the current Core 40 diploma, and the GPS Diploma Plus, which would require students to complete at least 75 hours of work experience in high school.

The general diploma and the Technical Honors diploma would also be replaced by the two new diplomas.

Each begins with a set of 20 credits that students must complete in their freshmen and sophomore years, and then allows students to choose classes, activities, and internships in their junior and senior years of high school.

The requirements would take effect with the Class of 2029. The department must pass new requirements by December under state law.

But educators are concerned that college-bound students will have to choose between a diploma that may not meet the admission requirements of a school like Indiana University Bloomington, or one that adds a work component that leaves students less time for academics.

“Why are we doing away with an effective vehicle to get students to college without providing a suitable replacement?” said Randy Hudgins, a teacher at Warren Central High School.

Students who are interested in college currently are encouraged to pursue the Academic Honors diploma, Hudgins said, which allows them to earn college credit and take advanced classes in areas they’re interested in.

State lawmakers earlier this year also passed a law requiring all high schools to offer the Indiana College Core, a block of credits that can be completed in high school and transferred to state colleges. Schools must offer the block starting in 2024-25, or submit a plan to do so by the following year.

The ICC courses could be used to help students qualify for the GPS Plus Diploma, though they would also need to complete the work requirements.

The Academic Honors diploma includes additional requirements on top of the standard Core 40, like more advanced math courses, world language, and fine arts. Neither of the proposed new diploma options has these requirements; instead, students can take these courses to earn points in their final two years of high school.

If some of those language, fine arts, and math classes become optional, Hudgins said, educators are concerned they will lose their jobs as schools make cuts to programs.

Hudgins said many of his students already serve as school leaders and take after-school jobs that allow them to take advanced academic classes during the day.

“Their level of stress is quite high,” he said.

And meeting the requirements may be more difficult at some schools than others.

Students at rural schools, for example, may struggle to meet the requirements if their schools can’t offer the same breadth of programming as urban schools, or can’t provide transportation to and from work-based learning sites, said Kendyl Weise, chair of the Indiana School Counselors Association Advocacy Committee.

Proposal affects counselors, families, and businesses, too

Furthermore, helping students plan for these new requirements likely means an increased workload for school counselors, who have higher-than-average caseloads in Indiana, Weise said.

Students make their graduation plans beginning in middle school under current state law, and would continue to do so under the proposal.

“Generally our goal is to help students grow and find their path. In order to do so, we need a variety of options and to be flexible. On the flip side, we have to make sure it’s beneficial and doable for students and their families,” Weise said.

In addition to school programming, it’s not clear if Indiana has enough internships and work opportunities for students currently, let alone under the proposed new requirements.

Data indicates that the answer is likely not, said Jason Bearce, vice president of education and workforce at the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. The state has added some work-focused initiatives, like Career Scholarship Accounts that offer students $5,000 for work-based training in high school.

The majority of Indiana employers are small and midsize businesses that may not have the appropriate staffing to train high schoolers on the job, Bearce said. Some are also concerned about liability if they hire underage employees.

Hudgins, the Warren teacher, said educators are likewise concerned about keeping students safe while they’re doing off-campus work.

But it’s important for businesses to think of providing these opportunities as a talent pipeline, rather than as a favor to a student, Bearce said. Opportunities should exist for schools to work regionally with employers, rather than reaching out individually to seek jobs for their students. And flexible school schedules could help students juggle academics and work opportunities.

“Anytime you make a major policy shift you’re going to have challenges. It’s not a reason to not do it, but we need to do it in a thoughtful way,” Bearce said. “We want to have these experiences exist, be high quality, and result in the outcomes that we want.”

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