Are student skills at the end of high school good enough to meet the needs of a global economy? This question reflects a public concern that has existed since the early 1980s. Since then, states and districts across the country have increased their graduation requirements to include more rigorous coursework. With a new emphasis on college and career readiness, coursework requirements are again increasing in rigor. States are also including tests to ensure that students can demonstrate knowledge and skills needed after high school. With increasing frequency, tests no longer reflect minimum competencies, but instead are end-of-course exams or are college entrance exams. Graduation tests like these may create many challenges for students with disabilities.
With or without the tests, there are several graduation requirements that become barriers for students with disabilities. States and districts have created a variety of documents to indicate the status of students at the end of high school. In addition to diplomas, there are certificates of completion, certificates of attendance, special education diplomas, and a host of other documents. How students with disabilities meet the requirements for high school graduation, what options are available to them to document their knowledge and skills, and what the effects are of receiving various end-of-school documents are important questions to answer.
It has been suggested that high stakes assessments should not be used for students until the system has been held accountable for having adequate programs for all students. Even so, increasing use is being made of high stakes assessments that determine whether a student moves from one grade to the next or leaves high school with a standard diploma. These assessments create significant challenges for students with disabilities, their families, and the educators who work with them. Increasing dropout rates may be just one of many possible results of these policies. However, the research is not yet conclusive on the effects of using assessments to impose high stakes consequences on students with disabilities. There is great need for further consideration of the issues, for research on the intended and unintended effects of such policies, and for improvement in educational and assessment programs so that all students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.