Indiana proposes redesign of high school diploma

Apr. 19—As Indiana education officials seek to "rethink" high school and redesign diplomas, Washington High School in Daviess County has been highlighted as one that already has a head start.

The school has partnered with Reliable MicroSystems, a micro-electronics company and defense contractor in Odon, to launch a microelectronics internship program.

In January, high school senior Xavier Frank began serving as a staff engineer intern with the company, located in WestGate-Crane Technology Park.

"I've learned a lot about what an official engineering job is like and the amount of work you have to do," said Frank, 18, who is headed to Princeton University in the fall where he will major in physics.

As part of the internship, he's designed a printed circuit board that will be used in radiation testing and he's learned about managing projects. He does a lot of coding.

An internship such as the one he has can help students who want to attend universities with more rigorous admission requirements, Frank said.

Those internships can also help the state develop homegrown talent for new, emerging industries, he said.

Katie Jenner, Indiana secretary of education, pointed to Washington High School as an example of schools "that are already leaning in on rethinking high school, offering students the chance to experience careers, develop skills that will benefit them in the future, and ultimately, support them in finding their best path ahead."

The Washington High School internship "is particularly relevant because it supports the state's emerging semiconductor industry and illuminates the innovative, high-tech opportunities that exist for students right here in Indiana," Jenner wrote in a recent communication.

Rethinking high school

In March, the state Department of Education outlined a proposal to streamline the number of high school diplomas as part of an overall effort to "rethink" the high school experience.

The goal is to better prepare students for their lives after graduation, whether they want to pursue college or other skills training, enter the workforce or join the military.

The proposal calls for two diplomas, Indiana GPS Diploma, a more flexible, personalized version of the current Core 40 diploma, and Indiana GPS Diploma plus.

They would be aligned to the state's current graduation pathways, as well as the five characteristics of an Indiana Graduate Prepared to Succeed (Indiana GPS), which include: academic mastery; career and postsecondary readiness (credentials and experiences); communication and collaboration; work ethic; and civic, financial and digital literacy.

For all students, regardless of the diploma they earn, learning in ninth and 10th grades would be focused on essential knowledge and skills.

That would be achieved through a set of foundational courses as well as opportunities for students to demonstrate competencies both within school and beyond.

The proposal allows for additional flexibility and personalization in 11th and 12th grades, according to a state news release.

Students pursuing the proposed Indiana GPS Diploma Plus would have to complete additional coursework necessary to earn a chosen credential of value. They would also be required to complete a high-quality, work-based learning experience.

"The reality is, the structure of the American high school experience has not changed for most students in over 100 years," Jenner stated in a news release.

Part of the proposal involves "allowing students the flexibility to experience work-based learning, increase their educational attainment by earning a credential and personalize their journey to achieve their unique goals," Jenner said.

There would be less emphasis on prescriptive course requirements.

The Indiana Board of Education has initiated the rule-making process. Prior to the board's final adoption of new diploma requirements — which could occur in August or September — there will be two public comment periods as the proposal evolves.

Indiana's current graduation requirements will sunset Oct. 1, 2028, making final requirements effective for all students beginning with the class of 2029 (Indiana's current seventh graders), according to an IDOE news release.

Indiana will also continue to offer the federally-required alternate diploma, which is designed for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

State proposal 'promising'

The "rethinking high school" initiative is promising, particularly for high school students who intend to opt for employment after graduation, said Terry Spradlin, executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association.

"It will certainly change the high school experience, especially in the junior and senior years with the flexibility the proposed diploma requirements provide," he said.

ISBA supports the initial plan and will offer input during the public comment period.

"It is an ambitious plan and I commend Dr. Jenner, IDOE, and the SBOE for their 'big picture' thinking," Spradlin said. "I am confident that revisions to the proposal based on public comments will only make the plan better."

At the same time, he said he hopes it doesn't diminish a focus on college enrollment for a majority of high school students.

Indiana will benefit most in attracting employers, growing jobs and improving Hoosier quality of life if 65% to 70% of seniors enroll in college each year, he said.

The Academic Honors Diploma has been effective in preparing students for the rigors of postsecondary education and has been a strong predictor of college enrollment, persistence and completion, he said.

The high school experience has not remained static, Spradlin said, noting that the Class of 2023 was the first class of seniors to graduate with the newer graduation pathway requirements.

The success of these proposed changes will depend on the support of business and industry to provide meaningful work-based learning experiences for high school students, Spradlin said.

Also, the significant personalization the proposal offers to students will require more high school counselors to help them navigate the many pathways and options to meet graduation requirements.

"ISBA's top legislative priority in the next budget session of the state legislature will be to call for the creation of a Student Support Services grant program to provide financial resources to help hire more school counselors," Spradlin said.

State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, and a high school math teacher, agreed that every school will need more counselors to customize each student's experience "and the state will need to fund that."

Higher education attainment must also remain a priority, she said.

"As a state, we need to encourage students to not only fill our workforce needs, but to also be the innovators, scientists and creatives who create the next generation of jobs," Pfaff said.

"As this conversation continues, there needs to be more than just a push to fill the immediate goal of Hoosier employers for more bodies to fill jobs," she said.

Indiana Chamber supportive

The Indiana Chamber of Commerce believes the diploma redesign proposal "very much aligns with changes we've been advocating for some time," said Jason Bearce, chamber vice president for education and workforce development.

Chamber priorities include embedding opportunities for students to earn industry-recognized credentials and post secondary degrees while they are still in high school.

Along with that is giving students more relevant, applied learning opportunities that reinforce what they learn in the classroom through internships, apprenticeships and related experiences, Bearce said.

"We think those are absolutely fundamental," he said. "We think that it makes sense for students to have these opportunities earlier on in their education career."

Some aspects of the diploma redesign may need further work or clarification, he said.

The state may need to "prioritize the credentials that should be available to all students and make sure they are closely aligned with where business/industry is headed," he said.

Bearce also suggests a diploma indicating higher level honors or distinction "to identify students who really are ahead of the curve in terms of being prepared for what comes next."

Questions and concerns

Michael Hicks, a Ball State University economist, cautions that "revamping high school should focus on stronger lifetime skills, and far less focus on immediate job training. That will be hard for a few industry lobbyists to swallow."

Indiana faces a human capital crisis, with the collapse of college attendance. "We are now firmly a bottom 10 state in educational attainment, with the lag of declining college attendance ensuring almost a decade of decline. Any attempt to revamp high school education that fails to target that issue head on, will fail," he stated.

Hicks says there is a declining national demand for workers who've not been to college.

"The numbers are stark, suggesting that maybe three in four high school graduates need to head to college, and about half of them graduate, to keep Indiana from further sliding toward being a low-wage, low-human capital state," he said.

That means "we should be very cautious about which business leaders we listen to. Hoosier policymakers have spent more than a decade giving extra weight to the labor market concerns of low wage employers. That has damaged K-12 education, resulted in lower college attendance and diverted resources away from education," said Hicks, who is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State.

Michele Kirby, director of counseling at Terre Haute North Vigo High school, has serious concerns when IDOE states in a presentation that "Indiana is the first state in the nation to significantly redesign diplomas ... which means, there is no roadmap. This will not be perfect, but we must start somewhere."

With such significant changes under consideration, "What if this doesn't work at all?" Kirby asks.

The state presentation also suggests changing high school transcripts to more accurately reflect a student's knowledge, skills and experiences.

That will require collaboration with universities, including those out-of-state, and others who use a student's transcript, Kirby said.

If Indiana transcripts start looking completely different than what is used elsewhere, "How will anyone be able to determine what our students really know and what they don't know?" she said.

Kirby has other questions. How many businesses will participate and offer junior and seniors these internships and experiences? "Who will monitor all these kids? Who is going to track all these kids? That gets to be a costly endeavor."

How will students get to these sites? Not all have their own transportation.

"From a counselor perspective, we have to make sure they [students] check off each component ... there will be so many different ways to earn a diploma," she said. "It's a nightmare in tracking for us."

The changes will require more guidance counselors and more staff involved in work-based learning efforts who also will be liaisons with employers, she said.

"There are so many unknowns right now," she said.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or at Follow Sue on X at @TribStarSue.