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For Special Education Students, 'Regular Diplomas' Can be Watered Down

When it comes to students with disabilities, what goes into a "regular diploma" can be very different than it is for general education students—and that can leave those students with a high school completion certificate that isn't as academically rigorous as the one earned by typically developing peers. 

Those are the findings in the new report "Diplomas that Matter: Ensuring Equity of Opportunity for Students with Disabilities," written by the education reform group Achieve and the National Center on Educational Outcomes, a federally funded organization that supports educators in including students with disabilities on standardized assessments. 

The world of graduation requirements for students with disabilities is complex. The report notes that roughly half of states require all students to work toward a regular high school diploma. Those 26 states, plus the District of Columbia, have no diploma option that is designated specifically for students with disabilities.

In contrast, 24 states have diploma options that are exclusively for students with disabilities.

But digging into those statistics uncovers even more variability. When the only option for students is a regular diploma, states often give a lot of latitude to the individualized education program team to develop course requirements for those students that can carry them over the finish line—which could mean taking easier courses, or allowing a lower score to count as "passing" on standardized tests. 

Those states had higher numbers of special education students earning "regular diplomas," but what coursework and tests scores went into earning those diplomas is not known, the report states. 

On the other hand, states that have multiple diploma options tended to hold special education and general education students to the same requirements for a regular diploma. But the graduation rates for students with disabilities in those states is lower, and those states shifted more students into alternative certification paths that could have limited value for the work world or for postsecondary education

In both cases, students with disabilities end up potentially being shortchanged, said Marie O'Hara, associate director of policy and practice for Achieve.

(I explored this issue in a 2015 article for Education Week on graduation requirements for students with disabilities.)

Setting High Standards for All Students 

According to the National Center on Educational Outcomes, about 80 to 85 percent of students with disabilities do not have intellectual impairments. These are students who could meet the same achievement standards as their peers, with appropriate instruction, supports, and accommodations, the NCEO says. 

But even with all the variability, and the ability for educational teams to tweak graduation requirements, there's a large graduation gap between students with disabilities and general education students. In October, President Obama held an event to cheer the rise in the overall graduation rate, to 83.2 percent. But the graduation rate for students with disabilities, while also increasing, is still nearly 20 percentage points behind at 64.6 percent. 

And that gap is before taking into account the variation in diplomas. O'Hara said that this report is intended to ensure that policymakers know what's going on in their states. 

"There's not a lot of focus on whether a kid is meeting regular diploma requirements or if they've been dialed down," O'Hara said. "And what's happening to those kids when they enroll in a two- or four-year postsecondary college?  One signal is being sent to a kid that they're ready, and then they arrive [at college], and they're told a very different story."

She added: "The incentives are set up so that everybody should be rowing in the same direction—earning regular diplomas and meeting the standards that are set for all kids." 

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