Alex Cohen is the Director of Learning and Evaluation for the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation.

In Indiana, high school students can earn one of three diplomas—a Core 40 diploma, a more challenging Honors diploma and a less rigorous general diploma. But under new federal guidelines that are part of the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, Indiana would not be allowed to count the roughly 12% of graduates earning the general diploma toward its official high school graduation count.

The new ESSA guidelines have sparked debate and raised an important question about the importance of establishing high standards for high school diplomas.

Some support the general diploma because it offers a path to graduation for special education students or those who struggle academically. But others argue that excluding diplomas like Indiana’s general diploma will incentivize schools to establish more rigorous requirements for graduation so that all students who do graduate are better prepared for college and employment.

A look at the data from Marion County and the state reveals that, unsurprisingly, students who earn the Core 40 or Honors diploma are more likely to attend college and less likely to need remediation, compared to students earning a general diploma. This may be in large part because these diplomas require more rigorous coursework for students that ensures they are well-prepared for post-secondary education and training, or careers.

But looking more closely at the district-level data reveals some limitations to focusing just on diploma type alone.

In particular, even among students who receive the same diploma, there’s still plenty of variation in college remediation rates. Statewide 57% of students who received a Core 40 diploma enrolled in college, and 20% required remediation. But at Indianapolis Public Schools, to take one example, just 47% of students receiving a Core 40 diploma enrolled in college. And 35% required remediation, which is 75% more than the state average. This suggests that shifting all students to a Core 40 or Honors diploma alone won’t ensure college success.

It also underscores the importance of looking across the pipeline from high school to college enrollment to college performance. Focusing on select parts of this pipeline can skew the picture. At Pike Township Schools, for example, college remediation rates are the highest among the 11 Marion County districts, but the district is tied for third-highest college enrollment. Other districts, similarly, may perform better in college remediation in part due to a lower number of students enrolling in college—so that it’s only those high-achieving students attending college at all.

Taken together, these findings suggest that diploma type does matter but should be one of many accountability metrics. The focus of schools—and policy—should be to ensure high-quality preparation for students as they move on from high school and to help students overcome barriers to enrollment in post-secondary education or training. Urging K-12 schools to maintain high standards through more rigorous diplomas can be an important step.

You can find more data on academic performance among Marion County students on our Data page.

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