New High School Graduation Waiver Rules Likely, Lawmaker Says
IPS is one of the targets; White says they are already bringing rate down
The head of Indianapolis Public Schools is confident that fewer high school seniors will graduate with waivers next year. The General Assembly may pass new rules on those waivers before he has a chance to find out.
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About 8.5 percent of the state's high school seniors received a waiver to get their diplomas in 2012, meaning they were unable to pass end-of-course exams in math, language arts or both. Representative Bob Behning, chairman of the state House education committee, says only two or three school districts in the entire state are pushing up the rate - one in particular. "The goal would be to change the waiver system so we are looking with more clarity in terms of what a diploma means, when IPS is graduating 27-percent of their students with a waiver," Behining said.
Indiana students can receive a waiver to graduate from high school without passing the Graduation Requirement Exam (GRE) in math and language arts if they meet other requirements; earning a C-average in the course in which they failed the 10th-grade level exam, having an attendance rate of 95-percent or better, taking all remedial courses that are offered and receiving a waiver recommendation from their teacher.
IPS Superintendent Eugene White says his students are moving in the right direction - he points out that 32-percent of seniors in 2011 received a waiver to graduate. But Behning says the number of waivers should never have been allowed to reach double digits in the first place. "We actually have had several students graduate in Indiana with an honors diploma on a waiver. To me, that's a little ironic and not reflective of what a diploma should mean." Now, Behning plans to introduce legislation to cut down on the number of waivers being issued.
The legislature's Select Commission on Education declined to make a formal recommendation on waivers, though they were discussed in several of the study committee's nine meetings this spring and summer. Behning won't say what he will specifically recommend, only that he would like to put in more rigorous requirements to obain a waiver, targeting systems that grant large numbers of them like IPS and South Bend schools. "If you want a diploma to mean the same thing in Indianapolis that it means in Carmel or that it means in Elkhart, you've got to make sure you have the same type of criteria put in place."
Defenders of waivers say a diploma earned with one should not be viewed as having an asterisk attached to it. Since the waiver rules were created by state law, diplomas earned with a waiver are legally as valid as those given to students who pass the graduation exams. White, who has defended the use of waivers vigorously in the past, has moderated his language somewhat. Still, he says a diploma obtained with a waiver is no different than a diploma earned in "the 47 or 48 other states where end-of-course testing is not mandatory." White also says tests like the GRE are tougher for students in systems like IPS, where a large percentage of students live in poverty or for whom English is their second language. "Some of the kids have had problems with (the test). I must say, they've worked at that, and it will get better. Our waiver percentage has gone down and will continue to go down," White said.
Those are not excuses for poor performance, White says, adding that numerous changes were made over the summer to help bring the waiver rate down. Reforms include additional instruction for those who pass the required courses but have trouble with the state's exam. Another layer of review of each waiver request has also been added by IPS administrators, rather than allowing high school principals to make final decisions, "which means the people in the building will make recommendations, they will send that to the central office, we will have a review committee, and we will make the final decision about graduation," White said.
Behning says he will have a bill to limit the use of waivers ready when the legislature's regular session begins in January. White will be among those resisting further restrictions mandated by law, and says if lawmakers truly believe in local control of public schools, they will give IPS the chance to improve on its own.