Lower expectations for students with disabilities?

New report shows states sometimes offer lower-standard diplomas to students with disabilities

disabilities-studentsA majority of U.S. states offer multiple paths in high school graduation requirements to students with disabilities, according to a new report. However, what some likely intended as a way to help these students may be hurting their chances at entering post-secondary education and the workforce, which begs the question: Are states ensuring that students with disabilities are college- and career-ready?

The report, “Graduation Requirements for Students with Disabilities: Ensuring meaningful diplomas for all students,” released by Achieve and the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO), reveals that more than 400,000 students in 50 states have disabilities. Though 90 percent of these students can meet the graduation standards offered by states for all students, during the 2010-2011 school year, only 64 percent left with a standard high school diploma.

(Next page: Colleges, employers skeptical)

Policies, the report notes, vary greatly across the country: some states hold all students to the same graduation standards but allow students to demonstrate their mastery of standards in different ways. Other states, despite the potential for students with disabilities to achieve, lower the standards or lessen the coursework needed for students with disabilities to receive a diploma, resulting in a credential that does not signify they are ready for life after high school. Still other states award all students the same diploma, but let students employ multiple pathways to earn a diploma–and those pathways may vary greatly in rigor.

And while these different options may at first seem like a convenience to students with disabilities, offering multiple graduation options hurts students’ chances at college- and career-success.

“Many states currently offer alternative types of diplomas, such as IEP or special education diplomas, skills certificates, modified diplomas and others for students with disabilities,” said David R. Johnson, director of the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota. “While the intent of granting an alternative diploma is to provide students with access to future educational and work opportunities, research suggests that these diplomas may actually limit students in achieving these goals due to a lack of understanding and acceptance of alternative diplomas by post-secondary programs and employers.”

For example, the report states that, based on current research findings from 2008-2009, “post-secondary institutions and the business community find the alternative diplomas confusing and of questionable value. Employers are most unsure of certificates of completion, attendance, or achievement and are least likely to hire persons with these certificates. Similarly, post-secondary institutions place little value on alternative exit certificates and, in general, treat students who earn these alternative certificates as though they had dropped out of school.”

The lack of credibility in these graduation requirements shows. As compared to their peers without disabilities, student with disabilities have lower rates of enrollment in post-secondary education and lower rates of post-secondary completion, says the report.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data also “consistently shows that the employment rate of individuals with disabilities is half that of individuals without disabilities. Gaps in earning also have increased over time for those who earn post-secondary degrees compared to those with high school diplomas.”

What’s the problem?

According to the report, finding ways to accommodate students with disabilities—ranging from dyslexia to autism—is a significant challenge to educators, districts, and states, because special education educators “traditionally have differed in their views of essential competencies and outcomes for post-secondary pathways.”

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that students ages 16 and older have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) that include “appropriate, measurable post-secondary education goals.” However, states set the expectations for what is requires for students with disabilities to graduate with a standards diploma through policies on course requirements, diploma options, and the use of exit or end-of-course exams.

These policies vary by state, however, and in most states, students with disabilities are able to take advantage of allowances to obtain a standard diploma. Yet, this array of choices could be hurting students.

(Next page: Diplomas at risk and recommendations)

For example, the report reveals that in Nevada, which has seven diploma options, only about 25 percent of students with disabilities earned a standard diploma in 2010-2011. In Pennsylvania, which has two diploma options, nearly 90 percent of students with disabilities earned a standard diploma in the same year. In its report, “Diplomas at Risk,” the National Center for Learning Disabilities says that the data suggests that “the more options offered to students in fact results in fewer high school graduates.”

Students who do not receive the standards diploma, as well, do not count as “graduates” under the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.

“Policies that result in early decision that places a student on an alternate ‘track’ to a different diploma option should be avoided,” states the report, because many states with alternative diploma options “may have set their policy without consultation from post-secondary institutions; employers; or other community members such as parents, teacher unions, and individuals with disabilities.”

The report also notes that members of IEP teams “lack transparent information about the value and rigor of various diploma options and about the possible consequences for students of receiving an alternative diploma instead of a standard high school diploma.”


The report details five recommendations designed to assist state leaders in meeting the goal of not changing the standards to which students with disabilities are held:

1. Set high college- and career-expectations and clear goals.

2. Limit the number of diploma options available.

3. Identify multiple, equally rigorous paths to earning a standard diploma. Strong approaches for accomplishing demonstration of student knowledge and skills regardless of their specific disabilities can be achieved using Universal Design for Learning strategies and assessments.

4. Identify appropriate graduation requirements and diploma options for students with significant cognitive disabilities

5. Research the impact of state graduation requirements and diploma options on student outcomes.

“The vast majority of students with disabilities can be held to the same graduation standards and requirements necessary to receive a standard high school diploma as other students so long as they receive specially designed instruction, and appropriate access, support and accommodations as required by [IDEA],” said Martha L. Thurlow, director of NCEO.

For more detailed information about the different types of state diplomas, state profiles and statistics, course of study required for graduation, exit exams and end-of-course assessments, and more, read the full report.

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