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High-schoolers graduate in record numbers, but are they ready for what’s next?

Indiana offers an example of how to better prepare students for college and careers, and it’s narrowing some racial and economic gaps along the way.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
In September, a John Adams High School freshman English class took part in a phone-based activity in South Bend, Ind. A counseling team visits with students to explain the course requirements and diploma options designed to prepare them for both college and careers.

Destiny Castillo, a junior at John Adams High School here, says she has “big dreams.” She envisions herself as a dentist, running her own business and maybe even employing her mom.

She expects to earn six college credits for free through South Bend’s career and technical education courses. Thinking ahead is part of students’ experience here starting in middle school.

“I’m the first one that will graduate high school from my family.... There was a lot of help and support with my teachers,” says Destiny, her big hoop earrings nearly touching the shoulders of the royal blue scrubs she wears for dental-careers class.

In some states, students like Destiny have a much harder time exploring their interests and understanding which high school courses will qualify them for college. In places with the lowest standards, they may succeed in high school only to find out that their diploma holds little value in the eyes of employers and college admissions officers.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
Destiny Castillo, a junior at John Adams High School in South Bend, Ind., is a beneficiary of Indiana's rigorous approach to graduation requirements. She says, 'I’m the first one that will graduate high school from my family…. There was a lot of help and support with my teachers.'

But Indiana is one of 19 states that automatically places high school students on a pathway to graduation that includes enough challenging English and math courses to qualify them for postsecondary work. Here it's known as the Core 40 diploma.

And there’s new evidence that higher expectations can make a big difference. When states require schools to place students in a “college and career ready” (CCR) curriculum by default, students meet those benchmarks at higher rates, and narrow the gaps.

“When a state sets expectations high for all kids they are sending a certain message: ‘We want these kids to have access to a university if that’s what they want to do.’ Not automatically placing them in a CCR pathway … you’re just having them fend for themselves, and if a district does not raise requirements, it’s putting certain kids at a disadvantage,” says Monica Almond, a senior associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based group that advocates for college and career readiness. She recently authored a report on CCR diplomas. 

Graduation requirements vary

Nationally, graduation rates are at an all-time high, with 83 percent of students finishing within 4 years. 

But the requirements for gaining a diploma vary widely. Low expectations and fewer opportunities for challenging courses are a big reason many “underserved” students, such as low-income, minority, and first-generation college applicants, tend to finish high school less prepared than their more advantaged peers.

For example, a recent analysis of more than 2 million ACT tests for college admissions found that among students who fit in all three of those underserved categories, only 9 percent showed strong readiness for college coursework, compared with 54 percent of students who were not underserved.

Indiana hasn’t closed all its racial, income, and other gaps among students. But it offers a good case study, because it’s ahead of the curve in terms of tracking students’ achievement once they leave high school.

Those who struggle to meet Core 40 requirements don’t lose the opportunity for a diploma. They can still opt out and earn a general diploma, but only after they and their families get counseling to understand the implications, usually in 11th or 12th grade.

The state offers more-challenging diplomas too: technical and academic honors. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
Students at John Adams High School take a class in the machine shop on Sept. 13, 2017, in South Bend, Ind.

Half of Indiana’s class of 2014 graduated with a Core 40 diploma, and another 34 percent with honors diplomas. The more challenging their diploma pathway, the more likely they were to go on to college, the less likely they were to need remediation, and the higher their grades were in their first year of college, the Alliance reports. (Since then, the numbers opting for the general diploma have continued to shrink.)


"Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas Are Not Created Equal," Alliance for Excellent Education

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

A more equitable approach

Indiana and several other states’ approach to college and career readiness also holds lessons for creating a more equitable educational pipeline.

Overall, African-Americans and Latinos were significantly less likely to graduate with CCR diplomas than their white peers – in nine states with enough data broken out by race and ethnicity, the Alliance reports.

But the gaps were smaller in Indiana, Texas, and Arkansas – which made the CCR pathway the default – and some gaps closed entirely. In Arkansas, for instance, 88.4 percent of African-American graduates earned a CCR diploma, slightly outpacing the 88.2 percent of white graduates.


"Paper Thin? Why All High School Diplomas Are Not Created Equal," Alliance for Excellent Education

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The Alliance report used English and math curriculum requirements as a proxy for college and career readiness, but some states – including Indiana – set more specific criteria.

Indiana grades schools partly on the percentage of students that meet at least one of four indicators of readiness: passing an Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exam, earning dual college credit, or gaining an industry credential. By those measures, 65 percent of graduates counted as college and career ready in 2017. 

District-by-district support

Much of the state’s progress comes down to how students are supported, district by district.

In South Bend, a set of themed magnet high schools and career and technical education (CTE) options have created a culture where students explore what credentials they’ll need (and sometimes even start earning them) to achieve their goals. For some technical careers, an industry certification and two-year degree might lead to less debt and to a higher paying job than a four-year college degree, for instance. 

“We’ve talked about ... how there are so many more opportunities if you graduate from college with the degree, but there are also options you can take if you don’t go to college,” says John Adams High School freshman Brigid Reilly, referring to conversations in a required course on college and career planning. 

Early this fall at John Adams, an imposing tan brick structure with nearly 1,900 students, the guidance staff made the rounds to freshmen English classes. They introduced themselves and offered up a quiz game as students tapped answers into their cellphones and saw the tallied results projected on the smart board.

No matter what diploma type they opt for, they will need four years of English and math or quantitative reasoning courses, director of counseling Tammy Berebitsky explained as students perched on cupboards and rows of desks facing the center. “You’ve got a good start with Mrs. Drake,” she said, with a nod to their English teacher keeping busy in the back corner. 

Destiny, the aspiring dentist, says she and her friends all want to go to college, because “if you finish it, you’re going to do a career you enjoy” and not just a mundane job. 

South Bend high-schoolers get bussed all across the city for part of their school day depending on which courses they want to take. The main draw at John Adams is its optional college-prep International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

Between 2011 and 2016, the portion of John Adams students meeting one of the state-tracked college and career criteria grew from 27 percent to 62 percent.

The school and district work at boosting the message that CTE classes and IB classes can be the right fit for students of all different backgrounds.

“I’ve seen students that may not have succeeded in Core 40 coursework find a new life, a new set of ambitions … by jumping into a class like precision machine technology, automation,” Ms. Berebitsky says, crediting much of the boost in the school's CCR rate to the district's dual-credit career-tech programs.

Increasing minority participation in IB has been another goal – “a collaboration between teachers looking for students with potential and the counselors trying to encourage students to take that challenge,” Berebitsky says. The portion of IB students at John Adams who are minorities has risen from 25 percent to about 40 percent in recent years, she says.

'Graduation coach' helps with planning

Choosing a diploma pathway isn’t a one-time deal. Students meet with counselors, schools send home course description books, and plans can shift along the way.

At John Adams, each senior gets a “graduation coach,” someone on staff – often the student’s choice – who checks in weekly about their progress toward finishing high school and planning their next move.

Melissa Blossom, Indiana’s assistant director of secondary curriculum, took a similar “all hands on deck” approach when she was associate principal at Marion (Ind.) High School from 2007 to 2014. The majority of students there are from low-income families. “We came up with an individualized plan for every single student for eliminating their barriers to graduation. To me that’s the only way you can do it,” she says.

Counselor caseloads are infamously large, but Ms. Blossom decided to carve out enough time for them to meet with students about their college and career plans. “I took testing and scheduling off of counselors…. I can’t think of anything more important than planning a student’s future with them,” she says.

Since 2012, Marion High School’s graduation rate has been above 90 percent and has been surpassing the statewide average. Now, the state education department is looking at how to encourage more districts to replicate some of the approaches taken there.

Tracking student success

CTE programs throughout the state also have to closely track student success, and set up intervention plans if subgroups of students fall behind, says Chris Deaton, the state’s assistant CTE director. And they’ve made concerted efforts to integrate more core curriculum into those programs.

As a result, ”High school graduation rates are higher for CTE students than for other students. That’s an incredible statistic,” Blossom says. 

Indiana, like many states, is now considering a host of new policies as it works to conform to the requirements of the federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Groups like the Alliance are watching closely and urging states not to lower their high school graduation requirements in the process. But it’s a perpetual challenge for states to strike the right balance between high expectations for all students and creating too many barriers that could result in more disadvantaged students failing to earn a high school diploma, Almond says.

Caring relationships key

As state policies evolve, one factor that’s unlikely to change is the degree to which caring relationships with an adult in school can influence students’ futures. 

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
Nada Abu Sheikh, a senior at John Adams High School in South Bend, Ind., says that at her school, “each person has an adult they can lean on.”

Nada Abu Sheikh, a John Adams senior who’s exploring entrepreneurship in a countywide program called Startup Moxie, says that at her school, “each person has an adult they can lean on.”

For her, it was Savino Rivera Jr., a bilingual specialist who sponsors the international student organization. Some students think they aren’t smart enough, or they can’t afford college, she says, “but he gives them hope and options.... I know a lot of people who wouldn’t have gone to college if not for him.”

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