For the first time in at least four years, Indiana saw a decline in the percentage of high school graduates who were given a pass after failing state-required tests.

State Superintendent Glenda Ritz said the fact that the graduation rate held mostly steady as the waiver rate declined was good news for students in the state.

“While the overall graduation rate is largely the same as it was in 2012, when you dig into the data it becomes clear that more of our students are graduating without a waiver and passing their end of course assessments,” Ritz said in a statement. “This is a crucial step in ensuring that our students graduate from high school both college and career ready.”

About 6.8 percent of graduating Indiana seniors received waivers, according to 2013 data released today by the Indiana Department of Education. That figure exceeded 9 percent in 2012, when lawmakers and critics of the practice first raised alarms.

Waivers allow students who have not passed one of Indiana’s two required graduation tests — end-of-course exams in 10th grade English and Algebra 1 — to receive a diploma if they meet other criteria. It’s generally up to schools to decide who receives a waiver.

Statewide, Indiana’s graduation rate was 88.6 percent, a slight tick down from 88.7 percent in 2012. (Find your school’s graduation rate here.)

In Marion County, Franklin Township had the highest graduation rate at 95 percent and the biggest gain over last year, up 3.5 percentage points. Five Marion County districts saw their graduation rates go down, with Washington Township, down 4.7 points to 81.5 percent, showing the biggest drop. Warren Township was also down considerably, falling 3.8 points to 83.4 percent.

Indianapolis Public Schools saw a boost of 2.5 points to 68.3 percent.

“As a district, we are excited to see overall gains in our graduation rate and have several secondary schools show individual growth,” Deputy Superintendent Wanda Legrand said. “IPS students and families need to be able to depend on us to achieve our district graduation rate goal of 90 percent or higher. This is also our expectation of schools.”

IPS came under intense scrutiny for its heavy use of waivers in 2012, after it was revealed that more that a quarter of its 2011 graduates used waivers. With about 13 percent of graduates using waivers last year, IPS has now cut its rate nearly in half from 2011. This year, the district was not even the biggest waiver user in Marion County. Perry (16 percent) and Wayne (15 percent) townships were more generous than IPS at handing out waivers.

“I’d like to see us cut that number in half again,” IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said. “There are some students who may not test well who might need this avenue. But it appeared in our data it was more of an expectation than a unique opportunity.”

IPS’ graduation rate has improved considerably since 2007, when just 46 percent of students graduated, but much of that increase was fueled by wider use of waivers. In 2012, an Indianapolis Star investigation found Indiana schools made widespread use of waivers to boost graduation rates, prompting a summer study of the issue by the Indiana legislature and changes to state law in 2013.

“We never expected schools would waiver anywhere near this much,” Rep. Robert Behning, R-Indianapolis, said. “Our goal is to get that number as low as possible.”

The legislature last year made those who use waivers to graduate ineligible to receive any state financial aid for college. That rule goes into effect starting next school year.

“In the real world, the problem is the kid walks into the next step in life and does not have the skills to be successful,” Behning said. “We’re not trying to be punitive.”

IPS has been making a concerted effort to change its practice with waivers, Ferebee said, and the danger that students could be blocked from financial aid was one of its motivations.

“That’s a huge blow for a student who leaves us and wants to go to an Ivy Tech or another institution to further their education,” he said. “It doesn’t serve students well when they leave us with waivers in terms of opportunities for careers and college.”

About half of U.S. states require students to pass a state exam to graduate, including nearby Ohio. But Indiana’s waiver rate is much higher than Ohio’s and has been growing annually. With waiver rules that largely match Indiana’s, the Buckeye state has typically seen less than 1 percent of its graduates go that route.

Critics of the practice say it was not intended for such widespread use but rather was designed to help students in very rare and specific circumstances, such as for a student who had an unusually severe case of test anxiety but otherwise demonstrated a mastery of the skills required for a diploma.

Even with the decline in waiver use, many schools continue to rely heavily on them. Roughly a third of about 390 high schools that reported graduation rates in Indiana in 2013 used waivers to give a pass to at least 10 percent of their graduates who failed state tests.

In Marion County, IPS’s John Marshall High School led the way by awarding waivers to a third of its graduating class, while Key Learning Community High School (30 percent) and Shortridge High School (27 percent) were also ranked among the state’s top 20 schools for using waivers.

Also relying heavily on waivers were three former IPS high schools, plus one in Gary, that were taken over by the state in 2012 and handed off to be run independently by private companies or non-profit groups.

Indianapolis’ Arlington, (23 percent), Howe (22 percent) and Manual high schools (21 percent) along with Gary’s Roosevelt High School (28 percent) all ranked among the state’s top 30 biggest waiver users.

High percentages of graduates with waivers by those schools was one of the practices state officials cited as examples of their dysfunction in the past.