A proposal to streamline Indiana’s high school diplomas and reduce options to just two primary graduation paths was announced by state education officials on Wednesday.

The plan is part of an ongoing statewide effort to “reinvent” the high school experience and better prepare Hoosiers for their lives post-graduation — whether they want to pursue college or other skills training, or choose to directly enter the workforce.  

The new options will take effect beginning with the Class of 2029 — for students that are currently in seventh grade. Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said some Hoosier schools will likely roll out the revamped graduation requirements sooner, though.

“How do we make the four years of high school as valuable as possible for students? What does that look like in a country where high school education has not changed, for most, in over 100 years? And yet the world around us, technology, is advancing — the world around us is changing,” Jenner said, noting that Indiana’s diploma has not been “significantly updated” since the late 1980s.

“We don’t have a roadmap. A lot of discussion is going to be key — feedback is going to be key — and it will not be perfect out of the gate,” Jenner added. “But we cannot let the perfect get in the way of the good on this. We have to start somewhere.”

The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) presented the proposal before the Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE) Wednesday morning. Paramount to the plan, according to state officials, is maximized “flexibility” for students to personalize learning pathways and experiences, including with college courses taken while still in high school, as well as the ability to count internships, apprenticeships, military experience and other work-based learning toward their graduation requirements.

If approved, Indiana’s diplomas would, for the first time, be aligned to the state’s current graduation pathways. They would also model five key Indiana Graduate Prepared to Succeed (Indiana GPS) characteristics: academic mastery, career and postsecondary readiness (which includes credentials and experiences), communication and collaboration, work ethic, and civic, financial and digital literacy. 

The rulemaking process to finalize the diploma model is expected to take at least four months, Jenner said. Before the board takes a final vote – which is anticipated in August or September — multiple rounds of public comment and changes to improve the overall plan are expected. By law, board members must give their stamp of approval by December.

“Nobody in the state, higher ed industry, or K-12 is thrilled with the outcomes that we’re getting today,” said Scott Bess, who sits on the education board.

He emphasized that the proposed diploma model places “a high value” on credential attainment and student experiences, “but we’re not telling schools and students how to get them.”

“And that’s really the biggest issue with the current system we have. It’s very prescriptive, Bess continued. “This is the best shot we’ve got, because the diploma drives the majority of the behavior at the high school level, and giving schools flexibility --  I have full trust. I don’t think there’s anybody running a school, in any community, that doesn’t have the best interest of their students at heart.”

Two ‘streamlined’ degrees

Currently, Hoosier students can work towards one of numerous diploma designations, including the general, Core 40, academic honors, or technical honors options. Some schools additionally offer the International Baccalaureate diploma, which is dependent on successful completion of specific assessments and examinations during grades 11 and 12.

State education officials conceded that the existing diploma system is outdated and confusing for both parents and students. Jenner said it especially lacks options for students to get hands-on training or earn high-value credentials, given the various course requirements. The move now, however, is to be less “course obsessed.”

As laid out in the proposal, Indiana’s future diplomas would include the “Indiana GPS Diploma” — a more flexible, personalized version of the current Core 40 diploma — and the “Indiana GPS Diploma Plus.” 

For all students, regardless of the diploma type they earn, learning in grades nine and 10 would be focused mostly on “essential knowledge and skills.” All students would complete a set of foundational courses covering English, math, science, career and postsecondary preparedness, physical education, and civic, financial and digital literacy. Even so, students would have some ability to choose how the satisfy the priority courses.

Additional flexibility and personalization is then available to students in grades 11 and 12.

For students pursuing the proposed Indiana GPS Diploma, a minimum of 20 additional “points” must be earned through a combination of courses and experiences. Those points can be earned through traditional classes, but also from job training, JROTC or other military experience, and by earning certain scores on the SAT or ACT, for example. Additional points can be earned by taking more rigorous courses, like Advanced Placement (AP) and dual credit classes.

Overall, at least two points must come from math and four from English-related coursework.

On the other hand, students pursuing the proposed Indiana GPS Diploma Plus must complete additional coursework necessary to earn their chosen credential of value. They’ll also be required to complete a “high-quality work-based learning experience.” What those work-based learning experiences can or should look like are still under consideration, according to state education officials.

All students will use their individual graduation plan — already required by law to be completed by the end of eighth grade — to determine initial course sequences in high school.

Indiana will also continue to offer the federally-required alternate diploma, which is designed for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Per state statute, no more than 1% of the state’s students can receive the diploma type annually. 

“In many respects, this has felt like pushing a massive boulder up a steep mountain because there’s there’s no roadmap anywhere in the nation that we can just grab and take,” Jenner said. “This is going to be one of the toughest, most challenging conversations that we’ve had in years.”

Roughly two-thirds of Indiana high school students earn college credit before graduation. Still, Jenner pointed to thousands of Hoosier students who each year are just a few courses short of earning a credential while still in high school. She said many kids “are not aware” of opportunities in the first place “because we have never systematically set it up this way.”

As of now, only about 5% of Indiana students successfully earn a credential before leaving the K-12 system. 

“A lot of that … is because of barriers that they’re facing, requirements that they have to have, a checklist that they have to have, versus really focusing on their purpose and dreams ahead and getting that credential,” Jenner said.

Getting students trained up

Recent legislation approved by state lawmakers set the stage for a diploma overhaul that seeks to implement new requirements that are more “flexible and relevant to students, employers, and communities.” Part of the goal, too, is improving access to high-quality work-based learning opportunities and increasing the number of postsecondary credentials earned by students before they graduate from high school.

But before SBOE officials give final approval for the new diploma requirements, the state will host two public comment periods. 

The first public comment period will open later this spring, officials said. Hoosiers can provide immediate feedback, too, using IDOE’s online Jotform, which asks for additional solution-ideas, as well tools and resources that would be helpful in implementing new diplomas.

Jenner said the state education department is also thinking about ways to help school counselors handle the changes, in addition to funding asks for the 2025 legislative session.

“This is an exciting and hopeful day for Hoosier students,” said Tara Bishop, superintendent at Perry Central Community School Corporation, speaking before SBOE members on Wednesday. “We’ve been redesigning our high school for several years in our little rural part of the state, and we’re ready to leverage this model in the service of students.”

Eastern Hancock Schools Superintendent George Philhower said that already, about 25% of his district’s juniors and seniors are doing some sort of work-based learning — spending roughly half of their school time “in a real place of employment and earning a paycheck” while also earning credit towards their diploma.

Looking ahead, Philhower emphasized a need to “expand these opportunities even further,” noting that career training in high school is appropriate for far more Eastern Hancock students — maybe up to 70% of those enrolled.

“However, unfortunately, sometimes our current system requires us to check some boxes for graduation that get in the way of and distract us from our ability to blur the lines between what kids are doing in high school and what they might want to do next,” Philhower said. “We want to provide an education that’s rigorous enough to prepare students for life beyond graduation. We believe that the best way to do this is by providing students real authentic experiences while they’re in high school.”
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