Indiana’s graduation rates could be artificially inflated. Lawmakers want to change that.

Graduates line up for a graduation ceremony. (Credit: sengchoy)

Mar 29, 2023

Update, May 3, 2023: Gov. Eric Holcomb signed House Bill 1635 this week, which, as passed, requires students to show they intend to enlist in the military if they use the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test to graduate. It also provides more transparency to state graduation rates.

The Gist

Indiana appears to be in the middle-of-the-pack when it comes to its high school graduation rates, but those statistics may be inflated by two loopholes. 

More than a quarter of Indiana students graduated in 2021 because their school waived a graduation test requirement or allowed them to use a military enlistment test instead, state data shows. Most of those students never enlisted.

Proponents of a change in the system fear that students who fall in either of those categories aren’t prepared for what comes next on their career or educational journey in a state with declining college enrollment. Opponents, however, warn that the data could be flawed, and that both the alternative test and the waiver are beneficial tools to their students. 

Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, are carrying bills this legislative session to increase graduation rate transparency, but not everyone is on board. 

What’s happening 

Graduation waivers are intended to be used in unique situations, such as if a student transfers into a school district their senior year or struggles with test taking, as long as the student maintains a “C” average grade and meets other attendance requirements. But thousands of students who graduated in the most recent year did so only because their school waived a graduation requirement.

Some groups, such as the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, however, worry the waivers are overused. 

In 2022, more than 5,000 Indiana students received a graduation waiver. The rate among Black students is higher, with nearly a quarter of Black students graduating with a waiver in 2019, according to data from Business Equity for Indy

Oftentimes, though, the graduation rate parents see includes those students graduating with a waiver. 

For example, take the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Marion County, a district with a relatively high rate of usage of waivers. The district had over a 90% graduation rate in 2022, higher than the states’ average. But when excluding all of those students who received waivers, that rate drops to just under 77%, lower than the state average. 

“When we report as a state these lumped graduation rates like 90%, it does a disservice to parents and to students and the families,” said Ascend Indiana CEO Jason Kloth, who spoke on behalf of Business Equity for Indy during a committee hearing. “And it’s not fully transparent.”

Thousands of students each year graduate using waivers. (Credit: Joy Walstrum)

Multiple groups, including Business Equity for Indy which is pushing for reform, emphasized that completely getting rid of waivers isn’t the solution. Schools, they say, still need flexibility. 

Behning’s solution in House Bill 1635 is simply to increase transparency by prohibiting schools from counting any more than 6% of waiver students in their graduation rates. In 2027, that would drop to 3% under the bill. 

More than 230 schools wouldn’t be able to count some waiver students in their graduation rates, based on 2022 Indiana Department of Education numbers. 

Senate Bill 380, which will be heard in the House education committee Wednesday, similarly caps the percent of waiver students that can be used to calculate a school’s graduation rate. 

Why some are concerned about the proposal

Some organizations are telling lawmakers to think long and hard before making sweeping changes to graduation waivers. 

The Indiana State Teachers Association urged caution during committee testimony because of the potential lingering impacts of COVID-19 on educational attainment. Likewise, the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township emphasized that placing a cap on the number of waiver-using students counted in the graduation rate would lower the state’s rate and could tank economic development efforts. 

Had those students who received waivers instead not graduated, Indiana’s graduation rate would have dropped to under 81% in 2022, putting the state at the bottom end of the spread of graduation rates across the U.S. 

Leaders from the district added that the waivers benefit their students and “a number” of them have graduated from college. 

“We ask our legislators to think critically about their intent behind SB 380 and HB 1635 before acting,” School Corporation leadership said in a statement. “ We believe having data or a more clear picture that speaks to what students who graduate with waivers end up doing post high school graduation would better inform the intent of these legislative proposals.”

What about the test for military enlistment?

Perhaps the more controversial piece of the conversation surrounds the use of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) test as a means of meeting the state’s graduation requirements. 

Roughly 1 in 5 students in 2021 completed their graduation requirements by pursuing what could be seen as an easier testing option, state data shows. 

Behning said the option was intended for students who planned to enlist in the military, but Hoosiers can use the test to graduate regardless of if they intend to pursue a military career. Entire cohorts of students at some schools take the test for career exploration purposes.  

What score a student needs to graduate is directly tied to the score needed to enlist in at least one of the branches — currently 31 out of 99. 

Nearly a quarter of Indiana students used the ASVAB test, a military enlistment test, in order to graduate, state data shows. (Credit: Joy Walstrum)

A significant portion of students taking the test request certain accommodations, automatically disqualifying them from using it to enlist, Behning said. Others declined to share their scores with the military altogether, likely meaning both of those groups have no interest in a military career whatsoever. 

“It’s totally contradictory to what we intended it for,” Behning said. 

In the 2021-2022 school year, more than 13,000 students used the ASVAB test to graduate, Indiana Department of Education’s public database shows. Only 131 people used their student test to enlist in 2022, according to United States Military Entrance Processing Command data.

Behning argued the overuse signaled a problem within the state’s education system. 

“What it indicates is that we’re not preparing our kids for that next step,” Behning told State Affairs. “The American dream can be open to almost any kid, but if you’re not getting out the minimum which they need to be successful in life, I fear that we’re robbing them of the opportunity and dream as they deserve.” 

Under House Bill 1635, in order to use the ASVAB to graduate, a student would need to later enlist. 

Here’s why House Bill 1635 isn’t an easy solution

The Indiana School Counselors Association and Indiana Association of School Principals both warned that Indiana might not have an ASVAB abuse problem; the state has an ASVAB data problem. 

For example, some schools provide the test to all students as a career exploration option. In other cases, a student may qualify to graduate using the ASVAB and a guidance counselor simply doesn’t go back and check a different box when they qualify using another option later on in high school.

“The strength of pathways was flexibility,” said Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of Indiana Association of School Principals. “If we limit the ASVAB to just those who enlist, we’re afraid that’s going to diminish some flexibility.” 

Democrats in the House opposed the bill in part because they were concerned about forcing students to enlist in the military. Plus, they argued, the legislative fixes regarding waivers and the ASVAB don’t get to the heart of the problem: Why are so many kids unable to meet the graduation requirements? 

Gary Democrat Rep. Vernon Smith, for example, suggested a lack of early childhood education is a contributing factor to Indiana’s education woes.

“While I think the bill has good intentions, I do believe that the path to hell is paved with good intentions,” Smith said. “It doesn’t get to the root of the problems that we’re having in education.” 

Behning is considering other solutions as well, such as capping the use of the test. 

Why it matters

Those with associate or bachelor's degrees earn more money on average than those with just high school diplomas, but only 53% of Indiana’s high school students enroll in college

Advocates of adding guardrails to graduation requirements think the loopholes may be contributing to the low rate. 

“If students aren’t able to do that type of academic work,” Kloth told State Affairs, “the likelihood that they will go on to enroll in post-secondary education is far less likely.” 

What’s next?

Both chambers have already passed a bill increasing transparency when it comes to waivers, so it’s likely some form of that proposal will make it into law. 

What’s less certain is the language in House Bill 1635 surrounding the ASVAB. The bill passed out of the House last month by a 66-24 vote. It has already been heard in the Senate education committee and is scheduled for amendments and a committee vote Wednesday afternoon. 

It’s likely there will be changes to the bill before it crosses the finish line. 

Contact Kaitlin Lange on Twitter @kaitlin_lange or email her at [email protected]

Twitter @StateAffairsIN
Facebook @stateaffairsin
Instagram @stateaffairsin
LinkedIn @stateaffairs

Header image: Graduates line up for a graduation ceremony. (Credit: sengchoy)