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Change in federal graduation rate could impact A-F grades of Indiana schools

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- A change in the way the federal graduation rate is calculated will likely impact accountability grades for schools across Indiana.

According to the Indiana Department of Education, students who receive a general diploma will not be counted toward a school's graduation rate. The graduation is part of what determines a school's A-F grades.

"Students who earn a Core 40, honors or IB diploma will count as graduates," said Maggie Paino, accountability director for the IDOE.

The change is due to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which requires the graduation rate be based on students earning the "regular state diploma." Since a majority of students in Indiana earn the Core 40 diploma, that is considered the regular state diploma.

But, leaders in districts where many students opt for the general diploma option are worried that they will see a significant dip in both their graduation rates and A-F grades.

"We didn’t have that on our radar as far as 'Ok, they’re moving in that direction,'" said Troy Inman, principal at Pike High School. "It's tough on a school because that’s how the public sees us -- with that letter grade and that graduation rate.”

For the 2015-2016 school year, more than 23 percent of Pike Township graduates received the general diploma. When these changes go into effect, the graduation rate will be calculated without such students.

"That could very well impact the school’s letter grade if they see a drastic drop or even a minimal drop in their graduation rate as a result of these changes," Paino said.

Students end up on the general diploma track through a parent's request, if they fail three or more Core 40 courses or test in the bottom 25th percentile on the state graduation exam. Inman said students who want to go straight into the workforce after high school, instead of heading to college, often aim for the general diploma. Since they don't have to take as many science and math classes, the students are able to focus on more of the vocational classes available in high school in order to be prepared for the workforce, according to Inman.

"With this new change, it might limit their ability to take those elective classes," Inman said. "So, that was kind of disappointing for us."

Inman shared concerns about how the focus might shift away from career technical training as districts feel pressure to get more students to graduate with a Core 40 diploma, which requires additional math, science and social studies credits.

"That’s going to be an obstacle for a lot of districts who maybe have to hire more math or science teachers," Inman said.  "That’s a decision our board is going to have to make to see if we’re going to continue to offer the general diploma and kind of limit those options for those students."

Many of the state's special education students also take the general diploma path.

"You have to look at individual student and see what their strengths are and know they can still be successful and very productive with a general diploma and career and technical certificates," Inman said.

Officials from the IDOE said students who get the general diploma will still be able to go on to community college, as they have in the past. The difference will be how those diplomas are counted at the federal level.

"The impact of the federal guidance is really about impact on accountability rates," said Dr. John Keller, Chief Technology Officer for IDOE. "There's no practical bearing on how the diploma can be used."

The department is waiting for further guidance from the U.S. Department of Education on when these changes must be implemented.

"The department is advocating for this to be something that starts with incoming freshman class so schools have an opportunity to adjust and consider appropriate graduation tracks for each student," Paino said. "Rather than having it be something that is retroactive because the 2016-2017 class is pretty much done."