GUEST COLUMN: No federal interference in our high school diplomas, please

For years, Indiana has been a national leader in keeping track of its high school graduates. Unlike the vast majority of states, Indiana not only offers multiple types of high school diplomas, but also clearly defines and tracks which courses and tests students have to take to earn each type of diploma; this means that Indiana knows which students are ready for college and jobs at the end of high school.

Indiana can and has used this information to increase the number of students successfully completing more rigorous diploma options. In most of the rest of the country, there is great ambiguity and low expectations of rigor in high school graduation requirements.

Indiana’s leadership can further be seen in the fact that it sets a high bar and automatically places all students into an educational program – the Core 40 diploma – that meets the expectations of colleges and employers. Students can choose an even more rigorous option through the Core 40 Diploma with Academic Honors or with Technical Honors. Importantly, through the General Diploma offering, the state has also created a safety net for students who cannot or chose not to meet those more rigorous graduation requirements. With appropriate safeguards in place, including school counseling and parental input, students can choose the General Diploma so that they can still graduate, rather than earning no high school diploma at all.

Indiana has a good thing going and is doing right by its students. Between 2007 and 2015, the percent of graduates who completed the Core 40 program of study or higher increased from 72 to 85 percent, one of the highest in the country. In contrast, only 43 percent of California’s 2015 high school graduates and 59 percent of Maryland’s graduates completed similar diplomas. The last thing Indiana needs is a poorly-written federal law to force it to backtrack.

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was signed into law at the end of 2015, gives states new latitude and flexibility in their education systems and policies. However, it imposes a uniform way of calculating graduation rates across states that does not account for the different types of diplomas that states – including Indiana – offer to students.

Under this new definition, Indiana will no longer be able to count students who earn a General Diploma as part of the state’s overall graduation rate. This change would mean that Indiana’s graduation rate would fall from 89 percent to 76 percent, a change that has nothing to do with how many Hoosiers earn a high school diploma, and everything to do with federal regulation-driven math.

With this new ESSA rule, Indiana will be penalized for setting a higher bar as the default for its students and making clearly-defined alternatives available. The new federal definition only allows states to count the diploma that most students earn, along with any diplomas that are more rigorous, in their graduation rates; consequently, General Diploma earners can’t be counted.

Ironically, Indiana’s General Diploma is more specific and clearly-defined than the only diploma option offered in other states; these states will still be allowed to count all of those students in their graduation rates because the low-rigor diploma is the only one they offer. Indiana’s system is better, and the state deserves better.

Indiana’s Congressional delegation, with Congressman Jim Banks as the lead author, recently wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos with a request to delay this overly simplistic and damaging rule. This is a classic example of sweeping attempts at federal reform failing to consider what states are already doing well. Let’s not allow federal interference to damage the good work Indiana has long been doing to improve outcomes for its students.

Michael Cohen is president of Achieve, a nonprofit education organization committed to advancing college and career readiness for all students.