A little-noticed change in the country’s main federal education law could force many states to lower their high school graduation rates, a politically explosive move no state would relish.
Indiana is the first state to be caught in the crosshairs of the law’s new language, but other states are likely to be affected soon. The resulting debate could throw a sharp spotlight on a topic that’s been lurking in the wings: the wildly varying levels of accomplishment signified by a high school diploma.
“This is about to become a national issue,” said Phillip Lovell, the policy director of the Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group that focuses on high school issues.
In Indiana, the state faces the prospect of having to lower its graduation rate from 89 percent to 76 percent, a move its state superintendent fears could harm its economy and reputation.
The state’s in a bind because it offers several types of high school diplomas, and some are easier to earn than others. Half of Indiana’s students earn the default college-prep diploma, known as the Core 40. Thirty-eight percent earn the Core 40 with honors, and 12 percent earn the “general” diploma, which has lesser requirements.
Diplomas with less-rigorous requirements are the target of new language in the Every Student Succeeds Act. The law requires states to calculate their graduation rates by including only “standard” diplomas awarded to a “preponderance” of students, or diplomas with tougher requirements.
For Indiana, that means the state might not be able to count its general diplomas. State officials are in talks with the U.S. Department of Education about that prospect. Indiana Superintendent of Schools Jennifer McCormick also reached out to Indiana’s congressional delegation for help, saying in a letter last month that the lower graduation rate will put Indiana “at a national disadvantage” and would “not reflect well upon our state and could negatively impact our economy.”
Officials from the federal Education Department declined to discuss how they would interpret the ESSA language. In an email to Education Week, a spokesman said only that the department would provide “technical assistance” to states as they complied with the law, and that states can consult federal guidance issued in January on the law’s graduation-rate provisions.
The preponderance language in ESSA is only now beginning to creep onto states’ radars. The exact number that could be affected isn’t clear, although a recent report found that 23 states offer multiple pathways to a diploma. Many states offer multiple types of high school diplomas, though most don’t track—or publicly report—how many students earn each type.
In Arkansas, two-thirds of students graduate with the state’s “smart core” diploma, and one-third earn its less-rigorous “core” diploma.
In New York state, 4 percent of graduates get a “local” diploma, which isn’t as rigorous as its “regents” and “advanced” diplomas. In Oregon, 3.7 percent of students earn a “modified” diploma, which is intended for students with a “demonstrated inability” to meet all the state’s academic expectations.
“The idea is to create a pathway toward a diploma for students with significant challenges,” Jennell Ives, a program specialist with Oregon’s department of education, explained in an email.
Diplomas that signify less-than-rigorous academic preparation, however, were the express target of the new requirement in ESSA. No such language was in the previous version of the law, the No Child Left Behind Act.
“We were trying to address concerns about those weaker diplomas, to put a signal in there to drive states to make sure that diplomas were really preparing students for success,” said a Senate aide who helped draft the Every Student Succeeds Act.
‘Make the Most Difference’
Advocates for lower-income and minority students, and those with disabilities, were key voices at the table when that section of the bill was being drafted. Those students tend to earn disproportionate shares of the lower-level diplomas.
“We wanted the language in ESSA to make the most difference for those students,” said Laura Kaloi, who participated in the talks on behalf of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a special-education advocacy group.
By inserting the preponderance language into ESSA, its authors pushed federal law into a new area: linking graduation rates to the quality of the diplomas, not just to how many diplomas are awarded.
A 2008 regulation broke new ground by requiring all states to calculate graduation rates the same way: by counting the proportion of entering freshmen who completed school four years later.
That regulation also ventured into new territory by tackling the related idea of which diplomas should be counted. It said states could count only “regular” diplomas, not alternative or equivalency credentials.
The concept of diploma quality was on policymakers’ minds as they sat down to write the accountability section of the Every Student Succeeds Act. There was “a lot of bipartisan agreement” that the idea of counting only regular diplomas should finally be written into federal law, the Senate aide said.
You could see this as being about states that have to lower their graduation rates, or about trying to be honest about our graduation rates."
“This is new. For a long time, federal officials have been focusing on graduation rates without caring what a diploma actually means,” said Michael Cohen, who was the assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education under President Bill Clinton and now heads Achieve, a group that has researched the wide variety in states’ diploma requirements.
Allowing states to report graduation rates based only on regular diplomas, and diplomas that require more rigorous study, is long overdue, according to Lovell of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
States could well feel the sting of public disapproval if they have to revise their graduation rates downward, but the resulting shift in message justifies the discomfort, he said.
“The statute calls for honesty,” he said. “We’re finally being honest about what a diploma means.”
But Lovell also worries that an unintended consequence of the law is that states could lower their regular-diploma requirements to keep their graduation-rate numbers high.
Other consequences are already unfolding, showing up first in Indiana.
The state has long been recognized as a leader in getting students to complete college-prep courses of study: 88 percent take the four years of English and three years of math—through Algebra 2—that are widely viewed as a “college-ready” curricula.
Yet Indiana might have to pay the price of lowering its graduation rate because it chose not to require college-prep study for all. That situation strikes Cohen as creating “perverse incentives” for states to award less-rigorous diplomas to a “preponderance” of their students.
“States that do the best job of getting kids to take advanced coursework could be the ones at greatest risk under this policy,” he said. “They’ve succeeded their way into trouble.”
Lovell begs to differ. “You could see this as being about states that have to lower their graduation rates or about trying to be honest about our graduation rates,” he said. “Indiana is stepping up and being honest.”
Activists may differ on whether the preponderance requirements in ESSA are a step in the right direction. But they agree on another, more ironic truth, which is that the law will fall short of ensuring that all high school diplomas mean students are ready to do well in college.
Even among the many states that offer only one type of diploma, what students achieved to earn that diploma can vary wildly. Still, those states are unlikely to be affected by the preponderance requirement of ESSA, since all students earn the same diploma.
In Massachusetts, for instance, 77 percent of students complete a course of study that reflects the expectations of the University of Massachusetts. The rest finish high school with other assortments of courses. Yet all students earn the same diploma, said state education department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.
The same situation holds true in Maryland, where most students finish coursework geared to state university requirements, and the rest don’t, but all walk across the graduation stage with the same type of diploma.
In Oklahoma, students are automatically placed in the college-ready curriculum and remain there unless they opt into a less-rigorous one. But only the tougher course of study requires three years of math—through Algebra 2. And all Oklahoma students earn the same high school diploma, a state education department spokeswoman said.
A version of this article appeared in the August 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as Grad. Rate Rule Creates Quandary for States