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Diplomas and Special Education: Different State Policies, Different Results

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In 2012-13, Mississippi had the lowest graduation rate for students with disabilities, at 23 percent. Neighboring state Arkansas, on the other hand, had the nation's highest graduation rate for students with disabilities that year—80 percent. 

So what accounts for the difference? That's a question that is very difficult to answer, as I explored in this year's Diplomas Count article about different graduation requirements for students with disabilities.

The U.S. Department of Education requires states to come up with a uniform way to calculate graduation rates, by looking at the number of 9th graders in a state who leave school with a standard diploma four years later. (Some adjustments are allowed for students to transfer into and out of their graduation cohort.)

But states are allowed discretion in what can be called a "standard" diploma for students with disabilities through the student's individualized education program team. And that means students in special education may be leaving school having met different—or lesser—standards than students in the general education population. 

And it's important to note, as I do in the article, that most students with disabilities do not have cognitive disabilities. They may struggle to read the printed word, or they may have math disabilities, or they may have speech and language impairments (learning disabilities and speech and language disabilities account for about 58 percent of students in special education). But those disabilities do not automatically suggest that a student does not have the capability to do regular grade-level work. 

Education Week blogger Jackie Mader (who writes our Rural Education blog) and Sarah Butrymowicz wrote for the Hechinger Report about Mississippi special education students' experience with different diploma options. Their story begins with a young student finding out that the occupational diploma that she had received from her high school did not qualify her for college.

For my Diplomas Count article,  I interviewed Gretchen Cagle of Mississippi and Lisa Haley of Arkansas, both the state directors of special education in their states. I did not have space to include their comments in the article, and I don't want to give the impression that diploma requirements are the only issue that separate the two states; different state policies also play a role in how many students graduate with a regular diploma.

However, both agreed that state-to-state comparisons are difficult. For example, in Arkansas, graduation requirements "are up to the IEP team, We don't dictate that to school districts," Haley said. Cagle told me, "while our numbers are nowhere near where we want them to be, obviously, they're also very truthful. There's no sort of masking of any students. It is a truthful number, and it is what it is, and we're starting to get that better."

For more information on the topic, I would refer readers to others who have explored this issue. David Johnson and Martha Thurlow, both of the National Center for Educational Outcomes have been periodically surveying states about their diploma options for students with disabilities.  Education advocate Candace Cortiella wrote about the topic on behalf of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in 2013; the report "Diplomas at Risk" focused specifically on students with learning disabilities.

Eventually, the U.S. Department of Education may have to weigh in on this issue. The department has said it has "significant concerns" about a new Louisiana law that allows IEP teams to create graduation plans for students with disabilities, but Louisiana seems to be following the lead of what other states have done for some time.


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