High school diplomas were a top discussion topic at Indiana’s State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting on Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Indianapolis. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
High school diplomas were a top discussion topic at Indiana’s State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting on Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Indianapolis. (Casey Smith/Indiana Capital Chronicle)
As Indiana officials undertake a major redesign of the state’s high school graduation requirements, Hoosier teachers and school officials are raising concerns about whether proposed diploma changes will adequately prepare students who plan to pursue postsecondary education.

Also at issue is a plan to funnel thousands of high schoolers into internships and other work-based learning opportunities, which multiple district representatives said is not feasible — at least not yet. They noted, for example, that there is already a lack of such training opportunities available statewide for a much smaller number of interested students.

The new diplomas were largely the topic of discussion at the Indiana State Board of Education (SBOE) on Wednesday, where dozens of teachers and union representatives spoke up about the proposed diploma overhaul.

Paramount to the new 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.

Still, nothing proposed has been set in stone – the rulemaking process to finalize the diploma model is expected to continue for several more months, said Indiana Secretary of Education Katie Jenner. Before the state 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 underway. 

By law, board members must give their stamp of approval by December. The requirements would then take effect with the Class of 2029.

“We are going to take the time necessary to listen, listen, listen, travel the state,” Jenner said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s very, very important to hear all the thoughts and feedback.”

New diploma proposals

Currently, Hoosier students can work toward 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.

As laid out in the proposal, Indiana’s future diplomas would replace the current options and instead 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 to satisfy the priority courses.

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

The less rigorous GPS Diploma has fewer math and social studies requirements than the current Core 40 diploma. Students pursuing this option would have to complete a minimum of 20 additional “points” 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 GPS Diploma Plus must complete additional coursework necessary to earn their chosen credential of value. They’ll also be required to complete at least 75 hours of “high-quality work-based learning.” 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.

Teachers, school officials express concerns

Educators said they’re concerned, however, that college-bound students will be forced to choose between a diploma that may not meet the requirements for some university admissions, or one that heavily emphasizes work, leaving students less time for academics.

Many who spoke before the board on Wednesday pointed to the elimination of the Academic Honors diploma option. Currently, it’s the second most popular track among Indiana graduates and is largely credited with preparing and launching Hoosier students into college. 

Around 22,000 Indiana students received the honors diploma last school year, according to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE).

The Academic Honors diploma has additional requirements compared to the standard Core 40, including more advanced math courses, world language credits, and fine arts. 

The same requirements would not carry over to the proposed new diplomas, however. Rather, students would be able to choose to take the courses in their final two years of high school.

“(The Academic Honors Diploma) has gotten many students into college. It’s prepared them. And if we do away with it, we don’t have that guide — we don’t have that map. And I see students who, if they don’t follow this, flounder,” said Marisol Martinez, a high school foreign language teacher from Fort Wayne. “If we don’t have this, we’re just going to create a bunch of followers — if we just have a very low end diploma, and then one so high that many students cannot attain it.”

Steve Baker, principal at Bluffton High School, where 58% of students are pursuing an honors diploma, additionally said leaving the current system will cause “a big gap” for his high schoolers.  

“We need a good replacement for the honors diploma as soon as possible. … This replacement needs to be a pathway that a substantial number of our students, like 40%, can use,” Baker said.

He also called on the board to consider best options for at-risk students who may lack resources to complete the proposed diploma requirements successfully. 

“I want to encourage all of us, including the educators, to look through the lens of that student and family and how they can be successful,” he continued, pointing to the proposed “work ethic” requirement within the foundational requirements for either GPS diploma type. Among the example options students have to check that box are leading a scout troop or church youth group, volunteering in a community organization, earning 94% attendance, participating in two seasons of extracurricular activities, working a job, or having a GPA of at least a 3.0.

“Basically all of those are the same type of student, and it’s not the at-risk student,” Baker continued. “I’m afraid that student who struggles in school and doesn’t find it relevant will only be further isolated by these competencies. … I think we just need variety, and to be meaningful and relevant to all students, including the at-risk student.”

Board members cautious, but optimistic

Pat Mapes, who sits on the SBOE board, said schools want more “flexibility” for students — but “there has to be a defined framework — a roadmap — of courses.” For example, he said it should be an expectation that all Hoosier freshmen take Algebra I and English 9, as well as science, social studies and foreign language courses.

“We started this as wanting a work-based diploma. I wanted that kid who wasn’t going to go to college to be able to go get some experiences their junior and senior year — that was really true experience in the workforce — and to take mathematics and language arts courses that led them to that work-based experience,” Maps added. “But right now, I can’t see that. And I think that’s a lot of the caution of most people that we’ve had comments from.”

B.J. Watts, also on the board, said “innovation” is needed to rethink a new high school experience, but he also suggested that something “simple,” like adding an “additional diploma type,” might be an easier option.

“I think about my two sons, 25 and 21. My oldest wanted to be in the classroom. He went to IU as a human biology major. He wanted to be sitting there, taking biology, taking those courses. My youngest is an electrician. Both are going to be ultra successful,” Watts said at Wednesday’s board meeting. “He didn’t need to be sitting there taking some of those courses in grade 11 and 12. He should have been out working, doing those things that we talk about. That’s the freedom that comes with this that I literally love, but I don’t want us to lose track of what is working now.”

© Indiana Capital Chronicle, 2024 The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to giving Hoosiers a comprehensive look inside state government, policy and elections. The site combines daily coverage with in-depth scrutiny, political awareness and insightful commentary.