New grad requirements focus on flexibility, career pathways

For the first time since the 1980s, Indiana is significantly redesigning its high school diplomas – and we got our first look at the proposed new graduation requirements from the Indiana Department of Education this week.

The new proposal, first presented to the State Board of Education Wednesday, streamlines diplomas down to two graduation pathways: the “Indiana GPS Diploma” and “Indiana GPS Diploma Plus.” Currently, high school graduates can earn one of four diplomas: general, Core 40, Core 40 with academic honors, or Core 40 with technical honors.

The use of the acronym “GPS” in the diploma names likely rings familiar. That is intentional to align high school graduate requirements with IDOE’s Graduates Prepared to Succeed (GPS) characteristics that create a profile of a graduate with skills deemed necessary to have a successful post-secondary life. Those include academic mastery; career and postsecondary readiness (credentials and experiences); communication and collaboration; work ethic; and civic, financial and digital literacy.

Another step in Indiana’s push to prioritize pathways to employment and “rethink high school,” Secretary of Education Katie Jenner describes the proposal as the most significant update to diplomas in 40 years.

Crucial to the plan, according to education officials, is “flexibility” for students to personalize learning pathways and experiences to what they want to do after high school – upending what we may consider the traditional path to get a high school diploma in Indiana. These pathways envisioned under the diplomas can allow students, especially as they edge closer to the end of high school, to stack their schedules with college courses and courses in their field of interest, as well as the ability to count internships, apprenticeships, military experience, and other work-based learning toward their graduation requirements.

Dr. Jenner notes the significance of such an undertaking for Indiana to “rethink high school” and redesign its traditional diplomas. She often describes the experience as like “pushing a massive boulder up a steep mountain.” Because Indiana is one of the first to take on such a task, there aren’t a lot of models state officials could turn to for guidance.

“There’s no roadmap anywhere in the nation that we can just grab and take,” Secretary Jenner observes.

Now, diving into the two diplomas, both follow the already-established IDOE graduation pathways model with three components: required courses, employability skills, and postsecondary-ready competencies.

The pillar Indiana GPS Diploma is essentially a more flexible version of the Core 40 diploma. Much of the required courses we’re familiar with today remain part of the requirements to graduate, such as English, Algebra 1, and U.S. History, to name a few. Aligning with the GPS characteristics, high school students will fulfill foundational courses and competencies mastering those five characteristics.

Students would be expected to fulfill the foundational courses and competencies requirement in ninth and 10th grades by mastering the following areas:

  • Academic mastery: English, math, and science Career and postsecondary readiness
  • Communications and collaboration
  • Work ethic
  • Civic, financial, and digital literacy

Those first years of high school focus on the traditional subjects such as English, math, science, and civics. Key parts of these foundational skills are the competencies to show a student can use their knowledge in a given subject area. Each characteristic area has a required course listed under it, and then various ways to show competency.

A notable feature of this is that students will be able to earn credits toward graduation for what they do outside of the classroom, whether that’s participation in a sport, a club, or a paid job.

For example, a student can fulfill “communications and collaboration” with their English class, and then they would have to show competency mastery by say, joining a school related club like debate team or the newspaper. An external verification of competency is also required for this, such as through engaging in a scout troop or a church youth group outside of school.

Another example with work ethic, which is fulfilled in class with PE/Health credit, a student can meet the competency mastery several ways such as by having 94% attendance, two seasons of a co-curricular and an outside job, to name a few.

More flexibility comes in 11th and 12th grades under both diploma versions. In addition to core classes, students in 11th and 12th grade could take courses like dual credit and work-based learning ­– building their schedule to best fit what they want to do after high school. With this, IDOE uses a point system to measure older students’ mastery of skills and competencies since they will be able to earn credits outside of traditional classes. Students in grades 11 and 12 must earn at least 20 points to graduate, and two of those must be in math and four in English. Points can be earned in areas like fine arts, debate, JROTC, dual credit, Advanced Placement, work-based learning, or other credentials.

Under the Indiana GPS Diploma Plus, the pathway is more rigorous. Students earning that diploma, in addition to required foundational coursework described above, they would have to complete a work-based learning experience (at a minimum of 75 hours or more), and earn a credential, certificate, or college credit.

Two-thirds of high school students in Indiana earn a college credit before graduation. For credentials, just five percent are completing those before graduation. A lot of these opportunities, including leaving school for work-based learning, are often missed because students don’t know about them, Dr. Jenner contends, “because we have never systematically set it up this way.” She explains that for work-based learning, some students don’t even know they’re allowed to leave school for such an experience.

“A lot of that is because of barriers that they’re facing, requirements that they have to have, a checklist that they have to have, versus really focusing on their purpose and dreams ahead,” the state’s education secretary notes.

Looking ahead, this diploma proposal is still a work-in-progress.

The State Board of Education has an aggressive timeline in the rulemaking process, with the goal of approving the new rule in September. This first step from the board opens up the public comment period, where education officials will collect feedback via a Jotform anyone can fill out.

The first public comment periods will be open from now until June, and then another will start in June and July. Expect to see many changes made as education officials collect suggestions through these feedback channels. Per state law, the final rule must obtain State Board of Education approval, as well as a sign-off from the Office of the Attorney General and Governor’s Office by December.

Board members already offered their thoughts and gave a few suggestions on Wednesday. Board member Pat Mapes, for example, suggested that maybe world languages be added as a course under the “communications and collaboration” skills category.

Others express some concerns about the workload this may put on schools, who are already dealing with shortages in some staffing areas and ever-changing state standards. That’s a key part of asking for feedback, they believe.

“As someone who will be on the implementation side of this, I do want schools to find comfort in the fact that we understand this isn’t perfect,” board member B.J. Watts remarks. “We understand there are things we haven’t thought about in here.”

Board member Scott Bess pointed to a concern he has about tracking verifications for competencies, such as ensuring a students goes to a job fair or if they have a part-time job outside of school for credit. In particular, this adds to the workload of school counselors.

“If you’ve got 1,200 seniors and you’ve got to get verifications, I hope that we don’t go back to our counselors and say ‘hey, make sure that you follow-up with every student to make sure they did that’ because now you just doubled their work,” Bess ponders.  Indiana currently labors under  the highest student-to-counselor ratio in the country at 694 to 1.

As far as providing resources to schools to be able to implement these new diplomas successfully, Dr. Jenner reveals that IDOE is thinking about that in its budget request for the 2025 legislative session. The exact details of what that ask will be . . . she says “stay tuned.”

Bess, head of school for Purdue University’s Polytechnic High School in Indianapolis, remarks that the country is going to be watching Indiana to see how it evolves in redesigning its high school diploma, and everyone is going to be looking at the state to say “let’s look at what they do.”

“Nobody in the state, higher ed industry, or K-12 is thrilled with the outcomes that we’re getting today,” Bess asserts. He later continues in his comments, “This is the best shot we’ve got, because the diploma drives the majority of the behavior at the high school level, and giving schools flexibility.  I have full trust. I don’t think there’s anybody running a school, in any community, that doesn’t have the best interest of their students at heart.”