A generation ago, a high school diploma could open doors, especially to well-paying manufacturing jobs. But today, with technology radically reshaping the U.S. economy, many of those doors have closed. The high school diploma is as important as ever — but as a stepping stone to a higher degree, no longer as a destination.
That's one reason Indiana lawmakers are rewriting their state's graduation requirements. They want to make the path to a diploma more challenging and the diploma itself more valuable. Changes could include requiring students to take more math credits and a broader range of electives. The requirements would also apply to all students, and that's raising concern that some kids simply wouldn't be able to meet them.
Nash Huffman already struggles to keep up under the current system. He's a freshman at Noblesville High School just outside Indianapolis. Nash has Down syndrome and an individualized education plan. That means he splits his time between a general education classroom and working individually with a special education teacher. But, according to his mother, Jan, now that Nash is in high school, he's expected to do the same work at roughly the same pace as everyone else.
"You can't modify the work," she says. "You can accommodate the work, which is very different."
Nash struggles mainly in his math and science classes. After school one day, he and his parents meet me at the public library to talk. He's already had a full day and is tired. Later, it's back home to meet with a math tutor.
"Earth-Space Science is driving me crazy," Nash says. Why?
"Because it's real."
In Indiana, Nash must meet the same learning standards as other students and the same graduation requirements if he wants a diploma. He's currently working toward the state's General Diploma, which requires two years of math, including Algebra 1. But Nash's dad, Jeff, says his son isn't ready to take that class, so he's in another, remedial math class to help him prepare.
"He's got a math test tomorrow, pre-algebra, and he's working hard on it. But he doesn't get any credit for it," Jeff says.
That's because it's not approved to fulfill any of the state's high school math requirements. At this rate, the Huffmans worry that Nash will have a hard time completing the four math credits he needs to graduate. And, if the proposed changes are adopted, students could be required to complete even more — three to four years of math. Not credits. Years. Jeff says that would likely prevent his son from graduating.
"For a lot of folks with developmental and intellectual disabilities, that math comes, but it comes at a much slower pace," Jeff says. "At this accelerated pace, you fail one class and, all of a sudden, you're not going to get a diploma or you're going to have to double up."
The Huffmans are advocating for the needs of special education students as the state considers these new graduation requirements. In addition to requiring more math classes, the proposals include increased credits overall and focused electives that help a child find a career path or higher education interest — all things the Huffmans say could be tough for some special education students.
Jason Bearce, Indiana's associate commissioner for higher education, helped write the new requirements. He says his team consulted with special education experts about how these vulnerable students could meet them.
"Some of the experts that we talked to think that the vast majority of the special education population could earn these diplomas the same as they could today," Bearce says.
Not only that, Bearce believes that one of the proposals would be especially beneficial for special education students, including Nash: a requirement to get workforce experience or technical training.
"We would argue that, to the extent possible, if we can equip students, whether they're special education or not, with some very practical employability skills but also give them an opportunity to experience a workplace that they may be well-suited for early on, that might increase the likelihood that they're going to be able to find meaningful employment," Bearce says.
In Indiana, the only option for a student who can't currently meet the requirements for a General Diploma is a Certificate of Completion. It's not the same, and many parents say they want their child to have the opportunity to apply for jobs with nothing less than a diploma.
"There are always going to be some students that, no matter what that bar is, they're going to have a hard time meeting it," Bearce says. "Though we want to do everything we can to make sure they earn a diploma, there are always going to be students, as there are today, who need to graduate with their certificate."
During this rewrite, Bearce says, he'd like to see the Certificate of Completion carry more weight. That way students who earn one would leave high school with the right set of skills and knowledge to enter the workforce or school.
Not every state makes its special education students follow the same graduation guidelines as general ed students. In some states, Nash's remedial math classes would count toward a math credit rather than just preparing him for one that actually counts.
In fact, the graduation requirements for students with special needs vary remarkably across the country. Twenty states, including Indiana, and the District of Columbia have the same requirements for all students. Among the other 30, some require nearly the same courses while others allow a special education student to bypass many traditional requirements.
For example, in states like Idaho and Minnesota, the requirements for a student with special needs vary greatly from the requirements for general education students. In these states, the special needs student receives a specific graduation plan that is created within his or her individualized education plan.
Sheryl Lazarus, a senior research associate at the National Center for Educational Outcomes, has studied the effectiveness of adjusting graduation requirements for students with special needs.
"It's always really, really important to think about the characteristics of the kids with disabilities," Lazarus says. "Most kids with disabilities don't have significant cognitive impairment."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only about 13 percent of students receiving special education services have cognitive disabilities. The majority have learning disabilities or speech or language impairments and are able to meet graduation requirements.
"So often kids can really surprise you when you give them the opportunity to have high-quality instruction," Lazarus says. "Kids with disabilities may need some scaffolding ... but getting them access to the curriculum and things they need, they can just so surprise us. And it's a concern when states have expectations that are very, very different for their kids with disabilities than for their other students."
But what about students like Nash, who fall into that small 13 percent with cognitive disabilities?
"We've never sat here and said that Nash is absolutely, positively some kind of wonder kid with Down syndrome, that he's going to be able to earn that high school diploma," his father, Jeff, says. "But what we've always fought for is for him to have the opportunity to try."
As Nash struggles through Earth and Space Science, he says he's not sure where he wants to work when he's done with school. But he's positive he wants to rent his own apartment and share it with his two dogs and, someday, a girlfriend.