A National Study on Graduation Requirements and Diploma Options for Youth with Disabilities
NCEO Technical Report 36
Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes
David R. Johnson and Martha L. Thurlow
Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:
Johnson, D. R., & Thurlow, M. L. (2003). A national study on graduation requirements and diploma options for youth with disabilities (Technical Report 36). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved [today's date], from the World Wide Web: http://education.umn.edu/NCEO/OnlinePubs/Technical36.htm
This paper is based on a research study entitled "A Study of the Intended and Unintended Consequences of Large-Scale Assessment on Students with Disabilities," Directed Research Projects (CFDA#84.324D), from the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Aspects of the development of this report are also supported, in part, by the grant of the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, to the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (H326J000005) and to the National Center on Educational Outcomes (#H326G000001). The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it.
Public criticism during the past two decades about the lack of knowledge and skills among students leaving schools with high school diplomas has led states to implement graduation policies and requirements that call for raised academic standards for all students, state and local district testing, development of exit exams linked to a student’s eligibility for a diploma, and a focus on increasing student graduation rates. Within this context, there has been a new emphasis on the inclusion of all students in an educational system with high expectations and the same standards for all students. Thus, one of the major challenges in implementing more rigorous high school graduation policies has been to determine how best to include students with disabilities.
States have diverse approaches to the graduation requirements to which they hold students. Past studies have indicated that factoring in disabilities increases the diversity of approaches even more. This diversity in graduation requirements is complicated further by an increasingly diverse set of diploma options. Previous studies of graduation requirements and diploma options were conducted before the implementation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Although NCLB is a school accountability law, it does include as one of the school accountability indicators the percentage of students earning a standard diploma in four years. Therefore, it is important to again examine states’ graduation policies for students with disabilities.
In addition to examining the policies themselves, there is a need to examine states’ perspectives on the intended and unintended consequences of various graduation policies.
The present study was undertaken to update the status of graduation policies. Three primary questions served as the focus of this national study of high school graduation requirements and diploma options for students with and without disabilities. These questions were:
A survey was developed to obtain information on individual state graduation policies and practices, including respondent perceptions of the intended and unintended consequences or impact of these policies on students with disabilities. Responses were obtained online, via mailed response, or through telephone interview from 46 of the 50 states and from the District of Columbia (a 92% response rate).
Results confirmed the continued diversity of graduation requirements and diploma options. For example, while most states (n=31) set minimum requirements to which local education agencies may add their own requirements, there are other states that set specific requirements that cannot be changed at all by local education agencies and there are still other states in which the policies are set completely at the local agency level. Results also indicated that a range of diploma options continue to be available to students with and without disabilities in most states. In only 13 states is only a standard diploma (or a standard diploma and honors diploma) available to all students. One state had as many as seven diploma options available to students, and another three states had up to five options. Most states with multiple options had two to three different types of diploma options available to students. In the present study, 27 states indicated that they required or would soon require their students to take a high-stakes exit exam as a requirement for receiving a high school diploma; 2 additional states require local education agencies to select and administer exit exams for that purpose.
Changes and variation in graduation policies and requirements were evident in this study, both in comparison to past practice and in comparisons among states. The trends are moving forward with little study or examination of their consequences for students, families, professionals, or schools systems. Several recommendations are made to help guide state and local district decision making when adopting state graduation requirements and alternative diploma options.
For more than two decades, state and local education agencies have been evolving standards-based education reforms in response to growing public criticism as students exit our high schools lacking the skills and knowledge required to be productive citizens. Whether the impetus for adopting standards-based reforms comes from a perception of "falling behind" our international counterparts (as in A Nation at Risk) or from a belief that we are just "falling short" in providing equitable opportunities for all of America’s children (as in The Forgotten Half, Grant Foundation, 1988, or A SCANS Report for America 2000, SCANS, 1991), the general consensus seems to be that there are serious things wrong with public education, that the problems are systematic rather than problematic, and that nothing short of major structural change will fix these problems (Cobb & Johnson, 1997). In response to this criticism, states have implemented graduation policies and requirements that call for raised academic standards for all students, state and local district testing, development of exit exams linked to a student’s eligibility to receive a high school diploma, and a focus on increasing student graduation rates. All of these strategies are intended to increase the level of student learning and achievement essential to entering future adult roles.
One of the major challenges in implementing more rigorous high school graduation policies is how to include students with disabilities (Policy Information Clearinghouse, 1997). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 (Public Law 105-17) require that students with disabilities participate in state and district assessments and that their performance be reported. State testing and graduation policies now are also influenced by the recently enacted No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act signed by President George W. Bush in 2002. Under this legislation, schools and school districts must demonstrate that all students are making "adequate yearly progress," as benchmarked by average test scores and other measures. Further, schools and districts that fail to show achievement gains among students with disabilities, English language learners, minority students, and low-income groups will be subject to various district and state interventions. While NCLB is focused on school accountability measures and does not require that assessments be used for promotion or graduation, it does require that graduation rate be another indicator that states use at the high school level to determine whether districts are making "adequate yearly progress." The graduation rate is calculated from the number of students who complete high school in four years with a standard high school diploma. States and districts are responding to all of these new requirements with broad-based policies and administrative efforts to address how all students, including students with disabilities, will be included.
The courts have also ruled in favor of the participation of students with disabilities in state and local testing programs, including the use of high school exit exams. In Debra P. v Turlington, a group of African-American students challenged the Florida exit exam as being racially biased. In this landmark case, a U.S. Court of Appeals established that a high school diploma is a property interest, which makes it subject to protection under the Fourteenth Amendment. The decision in this case imposed requirements of curricular validity and adequate notice of high school exit exams. Further, in Brookhart v Illinois State Board of Education, the Court found that students with disabilities can be held to the same graduation requirements as non-disabled students, but schools must guarantee students with disabilities the opportunity to learn the required material (Center on Education Policy, 2002; U.S. Department of Education, 2002). In this case, the Court recognized that students with disabilities might require more advanced notice and opportunities to prepare for such testing than other general education students.
Recent court cases have focused more specifically on graduation exit testing requirements and the use of accommodations. In a recent settlement of a case against the state of Oregon by Disability Rights Advocates, Oregon agreed that for its Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM) and other state testing as well, it would view all accommodations as valid first, until the state could gather evidence to indicate that specific accommodations would result in invalid scores (Disability Rights Advocates, 2001; Fine, 2001). It also agreed that it would initiate a juried assessment process for those students who met the CIM requirements but were unable to demonstrate their mastery on a paper and pencil test. Technically, Oregon’s CIM is not an exit exam because all students who meet coursework requirements achieve a standard diploma – the certificate is an indication that the student has mastered the content considered necessary for high school graduates to master.
More recently, in Chapman v California Department of Education, the Federal Courts ordered California to allow accommodations in testing procedures for students with disabilities. In this case, California students with disabilities filed a lawsuit in 2002 challenging the state exit exam. The Courts also ordered the State of California to develop an alternative form of the test for students who cannot be appropriately assessed by a standardized test. This ruling represents the first time that a state has been ordered to adjust its high school exit exam for students with disabilities. Providing students with disabilities an opportunity to learn the material being tested and receive needed accommodations, including alternative assessments, has been the basis for the debate concerning state graduation requirements and exit exams in the courts.
Diversity in graduation requirements is complicated further by an increasingly diverse set of possible graduation diploma options. The standard high school diploma is not the only exit document available to students with and without disabilities upon high school completion. The array of diploma options found across the United States ranges from honors diplomas, to the standard diploma, to certificates of completion or attendance, and others. In addition, some of these diploma options and certificates are just for students receiving special education services (Guy, Shin, Lee, & Thurlow, 1999). These differentiated diploma options have not been fully examined in relation to future adult outcomes, particularly in relation to postsecondary education access and future employment and earnings.
There is a critical need to examine the current and future implications of varied state graduation requirements and diploma options. This has become important because of the findings that students with disabilities experience significant negative outcomes when they do not earn a high school or equivalent diploma (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Bruininks, Thurlow, Lewis, & Larson, 1988; Edgar, 1987; Hasazi, Gordon, & Roe, 1985; Johnson, McGrew, Bloomberg, Bruininks, & Lin, 1997; Wagner, 1992). There are also data to suggest that more stringent graduation requirements may be related to higher rates of dropping out of school among students with disabilities, compared with the dropout rates of students without disabilities (Wagner, Newman, D’Amico, Jay, Butler-Nalin, Marder, & Cox, 1991).
This paper examines the results of a national study on the current status of state graduation policies and diploma options for youth with disabilities. We examined these state policies in relation to their intended benefits as well as possible unintended consequences. The rationale for this study was based on the following assumptions:
States like Florida and New York have attached high-stakes exams to graduation since the late 1960s and early 1970s. The minimum competency test movement of the late 1970s and 1980s addressed similar concerns to those that the present-day graduation requirements and use of exit exams attempt to resolve. Minimum competency tests were established in response to concerns of employers, parents, and the general public that young people were exiting high schools ill-prepared for adult life. Advocates of minimum competency testing argued that schools had relaxed their standards and strayed from their academic mission – a problem that could be solved by getting "back to basics" (Lerner, 1991).
Options for students with disabilities participating in these state-level minimum competency tests were exclusion from such testing programs, use of different standards, and use of different tests (Wildemuth, 1983). Little attention was directed to the participation of students with disabilities in such testing programs. Despite their popularity (statewide minimum competency testing grew from 2 to 34 states from 1973 to 1983), studies concluded that these tests did not bring about the significant gains in student learning or broad improvements in public education that reformers had hoped for (U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, 1992). In addition, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment study reported that these tests were disproportionately harming minority and low-income students and increasing dropout rates. The minimum competency test movement, however, served as a template, in many respects, for the standards-based reform initiatives that began in the early 1990s.
Over the years, graduation requirements have taken many forms. Requirements that states set for graduation can range from Carnegie unit requirements (a certain number of class credits earned in specific areas) to the successful passing of minimum competency tests, high school exit exams, or a series of benchmark exams (Guy et al., 1999; Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Anderson, 1995). States also vary in their use and application of these requirements for graduation. The alignment of exit exams with state and local graduation requirements has increased across the United States. At present, more than 25 states have, or will soon have, mandatory exit exams in place as a condition of receiving a standard diploma (Center on Education Policy, 2002). This is an increase from 16 states in 1997 (McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997), 18 in 1998 (Heubert & Hauser, 1999), and 22 states in 2000 (Olson, Jones, & Bond, 2001). Graduation testing is also expected to increase over the next several years. The American Federation of Teachers (2001), for example, estimated that exit exams would rise to 26-30 states within the next few years.
High-stakes testing has become a significant part of standards-based reform and educational accountability. Tests are "high stakes" when they are used in making decisions about which students will be promoted or retained in grade and which will receive high school diplomas (Heubert, 2002; Thurlow & Johnson, 2000). The use of exit exams to determine whether a student earns a high school diploma, for example, is "high stakes" because it has life-long consequences and directly affects an individual’s economic self-sufficiency and well-being as an adult. The consequences of high-stakes testing for students with disabilities as a component of educational accountability is not, however, well understood (Lewis, 2000; Heubert, 2002; Thurlow & Johnson, 2000).
Proponents of the use of high-stakes exit exams believe that such exams motivate students and teachers to work harder and focus more attention on important learning goals so that students will learn more and be better prepared for later life (Center on Education Policy, 2002). Others believe that students with disabilities and minority students are often victims of low expectations and weak instruction and stand to benefit from efforts to provide high-quality instruction for all students (McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997). Critics of high-stakes exit exams point to several observable negative consequences that students may experience. These include: (a) increased dropout rate, particularly among minority and poor students, and students with disabilities; (b) retention of students within grades until they demonstrate improved performance on state and local district exams; (c) increased referrals of general education students to special education, due to increased pressures to pass exit exams; (d) narrowing of the curriculum and instruction to focus on specific learning outcomes assessed in state and local district tests; (e) limitations in the range of curricular and program options students can participate in because of intensified efforts to concentrate on areas of weakness identified by testing (consequently limiting options for participation in vocational education, work-study, instruction in adult living skills, and others); and (f) unknown impact of receiving an alternative or different diploma option other than the standard diploma in terms of future postsecondary education and employment opportunities (Allington & McGill-Franzen, 1992; Education Commission of the States, 1998; Heubert, 2002; Johnson, Stodden, Emanuel, Luecking, & Mack, 2002; Lane, Park, & Stone, 1998; Langenfeld, Thurlow, & Scott, 1997). Existing research on the consequences of high-stakes exit testing is limited and inconclusive, and the debate and controversy regarding use of high-stakes testing continues in the absence of empirical findings.
Across the United States, state and local district graduation policies continue to evolve, with a concerted move toward increasing requirements for graduation. State legislatures have also continued to experiment with state standards policies, graduation requirements, and the use of exit exams as a requirement for receiving a diploma. Revisions and modifications of graduation requirements across states are commonplace. With the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act, states must test all students annually in grades 3-8 in reading and math, and must test students at least once in high school; science testing also soon comes into force, with that content area tested one time in each school level (elementary, middle, and high). This means that all states must have high school tests, although they need not be a "high-stakes" exit exam tied to graduation. This legislation, however, will continue to influence the discussions of states and local districts about the use of tests in relation to monitoring student progress, graduation, and other forms of accountability. It will also affect discussions about what it means to graduate due to its definition of graduation as earning a standard high school diploma in four years.
Alternative Diploma Options
The value of a high school diploma is currently under debate nationally. Many argue that its value has depreciated, due to lowered academic expectations and to social promotions of ill-prepared students. Complaints from employers that the standard diploma has little or no meaning as an exit credential have heightened the debate. The meaning of a high school diploma today is far different from its meaning 30 or 40 years ago. Over the years, increasingly larger numbers of students have gone on to complete high school and enter college. Today, 83% of adults have completed high school, and 25% have finished four or more years of college or university training (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). By contrast, in 1960, only 41% of adults aged 25 and older had completed high school, and 8% had finished four or more years of college. Currently, access to a good job is contingent on far more knowledge, skills, and education than ever before, but there is no measure to indicate that the larger numbers graduating and going on to post-secondary educational settings translates to higher skills levels. The use of state exit exams aligned with state standards has been an attempt, in part, to ensure that a diploma means something in terms of a student’s knowledge and skills.
Not all high school diplomas are alike, however; some states offer a special diploma to students who take rigorous course work, achieve a high grade point average, or post high scores on state exams (Martinez & Bray, 2002). At the other end of the spectrum, students who fail state exit exams or who cannot meet other graduation requirements may receive differentiated or alternative diplomas or certificates. Thurlow et al. (1995) and Guy et al. (1999) in national studies of state graduation requirements and diploma options found extensive arrays of differentiated diplomas in use across states. These options included diplomas of high distinction, honors diplomas, standard diplomas, certificates of completion or attendance, IEP diplomas, occupational diplomas, and others. States also varied in the number of diploma options they extended to students. Diploma options ranged from one option only (standard diploma) to up to five or more options.
Arguments have been made for the use of both the single and multiple diploma options across the states. Advocates of the single, standard diploma contend that the use of a common diploma for all helps to maintain high expectations across diverse student groups (Phillips, 1993; Thurlow & Thompson, 1999; Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Reid, 1997). Benz, Lindstrom, and Yovanoff (2000) suggest that a single, standard diploma with endorsements that demonstrate additional coursework or mastery would be beneficial. That is, they advocate for retaining a single diploma option, with additional recognition that allows those students, with and without disabilities, who demonstrate mastery beyond the requirements of the standard diploma to receive credit for their accomplishments. Thurlow and Thompson (1999) argue that regardless of how many diploma options, these options must be available to all students.
Proponents of multiple diploma options base their argument for this approach on claims of "fairness" and "reasonableness." They contend that when students experience difficulties in passing state exit exams it is only fair and reasonable to create additional options with alternative or different performance expectations. Offering such options is intended to maintain student motivation and reduce frustrations that could otherwise lead students to drop out. Unfortunately, there is little research on the value or merit of alternative diplomas in terms of a student’s future opportunities for education or employment (Heubert, 2002; Thurlow & Johnson, 2000).
Overview of the Study
The present study builds on the earlier work of Thurlow et al. (1995) and Guy et al. (1999). These earlier studies examined state graduation policies and diploma options across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The purposes of these earlier studies were to: (1) provide policymakers and state education agency personnel information on the current cross-state status of graduation requirements, and (2) create a data-base to track changes in policy as states proceed to develop and change graduation policies. This study was undertaken to update the status of states’ graduation policies. Three primary questions served as the focus of this national study of high school graduation requirements and diploma options for students with and without disabilities. These questions were:
(1) What is the range and variation in state graduation requirements and diploma options across the United States for students with and without disabilities?
(2) What are the intended and unintended consequences that result for students with disabilities when they are required to pass exit exams to receive a high school diploma?
(3) What are the intended and unintended consequences of using single or multiple diploma options for students with disabilities?
A survey was developed to obtain information on individual state graduation policies and practices, including respondent perceptions of the intended and unintended consequences or impact of these policies on students with disabilities. Survey questions were also developed to align, in part, with the two prior studies by Thurlow et al. (1995) and Guy et al. (1999). The survey instrument was submitted for limited review to selected state and local special education directors as a means of receiving feedback on the appropriateness of the items included.
Respondents included the state directors of special education or their designees in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In several cases, the state directors of special education delegated the task of completing the survey to other knowledgeable persons, including state education agency transition specialists, state assessment personnel, and others. Three options were extended to respondents for completing the survey. Choices included completing an online Internet survey, completing a written copy of the survey and returning the response by mail, or requesting a phone interview from University of Minnesota research staff. Data collection occurred from October 2001 to April 2002. A total of 46 states and the District of Columbia responded, representing a 92% response rate.
Summary tables of all data gathered were compiled and transposed into tables. Selected tables then were returned to respondents to check to ensure that the data were accurate. This resulted in numerous phone consultations to clarify survey responses and the data presented in each table. In addition, an analysis of state graduation policies and supporting documents was conducted. This information was also used to help verify the accuracy of the survey data reported.
Survey responses from the state directors of special education or their designees are summarized in this section of the report. Subheadings reflect survey sections and are presented in tabular form, with discussion. The data presented here represent the status of state graduation policies and diploma options at the time the survey was completed by state education agency personnel (October 2001-April 2002). Given the dynamic nature of policy discussions across the United States concerning state graduation policies and diploma options, it is highly likely that changes in these policies have occurred since the time of data collection. This would be consistent with previous surveys (Guy et al., 1999; Thurlow et al., 1995), which have documented the extreme variation, and ever-changing political environments of states regarding student graduation requirements.
State Graduation Requirements for Youth With and Without Disabilities
States vary in relation to the locus of control over requirements that are set for graduation from high school. Table 1 identifies the relationship between state and local education agencies in terms of who establishes graduation requirements for youth with disabilities. Options include: (a) the state provides minimum requirements, and the LEA may add to them; (b) the state provides minimum requirements, and the LEAs may not add to them; (c) the state provides guidelines, and the LEAs may set their own requirements; and (d) no state requirements are imposed, and the LEAs set their own requirements. Besides the four states that did not respond to the survey (NSR), one additional state (North Carolina) did not respond to this item.
Table 1. High School Graduation Requirements for Youth with Disabilities
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response
column indicate no response to this survey question.
In examining the relationship between state and local education agencies in controlling the setting of high school graduation requirements, significant variation is noted in Table 1. The most common observed practice across states is for the state to provide minimum requirements and extend options to the LEAs to add to them. A total of 31 states currently have graduation policies reflecting this practice. Four states (Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) and the District of Columbia set requirements for graduation, and the LEAs are not permitted to change them. The states of North Dakota, Rhode Island, and Wyoming provide guidelines, but LEAs may set their own requirements. Six states (Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, and Pennsylvania) reported having no minimum state requirements for high school graduation. In this situation, LEAs are responsible for setting their own graduation requirements. In cases where states provide basic guidelines or offer no minimum state requirements, local school boards and/or district administrative staff set local graduation requirements. Requirements may also be established by IEP teams.
Overall, 39 of the 46 states and the District of Columbia responding to the survey indicated that they establish minimum graduation requirements for LEAs to follow. Because policy changes were occurring within individual states at the time this survey was conducted, several state education agency respondents were reluctant to answer this survey question, and one did not answer it although it answered other items. New Mexico identified other graduation requirements—Career Readiness and Abilities Programs, with graduation requirements established by local IEP teams. Massachusetts indicated it was in transition from local to statewide assessments.
Allowances Made for Youth with Disabilities to Receive a Standard Diploma
States vary in the allowances they make for youth with disabilities to receive a standard diploma. The range includes making no allowances and holding all students to the same standards, reducing the number of credits that a student needs, making available alternate courses that can be used to earn required course-credits, lowering performance criteria, and other alternatives. Table 2 reports on patterns of state practices in making allowances for youth with disabilities to receive a standard diploma. Some states, such as Minnesota and Iowa, reported wide diversity in options extended to students with disabilities. Other states (Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, and others) limit such options to a single allowance to receive a standard diploma.
Table 2. Allowances Made for Youth with Disabilities to Receive Standard Diploma
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response
column indicate no response to this survey item.
As shown in Table 2, the most common state allowance (19 states responding) made for students with disabilities is to permit the use of alternate courses to earn required course credits. Determining the "appropriateness" of these alternate courses was generally left up to LEAs through students’ IEP teams. Examples include allowing a student to earn required social studies or history credits through participation in a work-study program or receive required English credits by participating in a service-learning program that emphasized language or writing development. Many other examples were found across states in relation to this specific allowance practice.
Several states (Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia) and the District of Columbia make no allowances for students with disabilities and hold all students to the same graduation requirements. Other states have opted to reduce the total number of credits required (6 states) or lower performance criteria (10 states) for students with disabilities.
A total of 30 states reported that they used "other" allowances. These other allowances include: (a) letting LEAs substitute credit in special education for regular education as long as course credit requirements are generally the same (Arkansas), (b) use of agreed-upon modifications or changes as addressed in IEPs (Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, and West Virginia), (c) alternate courses that can be used to earn required course credits with a waiver (Georgia), (d) state-level individual consideration process (Massachusetts), (e) time-extensions (Kentucky and Florida), (f) modified curriculum (Minnesota and New Mexico), and (g) development by the district of a "body of evidence" plan and establishment of performance criteria cut-offs (Wyoming). Several states also noted the use of accommodations in coursework and exit exams as an "other" allowance (Alabama, California, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin), even though these typically are allowed in all states. The array of "other" allowances that are made on behalf of youth with disabilities are authorized through a mix of state and local education agency administrative auspices.
Table 3 illustrates the range of diploma options for high school graduates across the 50 states and District of Columbia. The differentiated diploma options include honors diplomas, regular/standard diplomas, IEP/special education diplomas, certificates of attendance, certificates of achievement, occupational diplomas, and other variations. All of the 46 states that responded to the survey, as well as the District of Columbia, reported that they offered a standard or regular diploma for students with and without disabilities. Of these states, 11 states also offered honors diplomas, 12 states offered IEP/special education diplomas, 17 states granted certificates of attendance, 11 states granted certificates of achievement, 4 states offered occupational diplomas, and 22 states and the District of Columbia provided variations of these diploma options. Thirteen (13) states extend to students with and without disabilities either a single diploma option, the regular/standard diploma (Arizona, California, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont), or the standard diploma plus an honors diploma (Ohio).
Table 3. High School Graduation Diplomas Available for Youth with Disabilities
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response
column indicate no response to this survey question.
Of those states that responded, 34 offered multiple diploma options to their high school graduates. The highest in total number of diploma options is Nebraska, reporting seven different diploma options. Other states, such as Colorado, Connecticut, and Wisconsin, report five options. In the column identified as "other" in Table 3, several additional diploma options are noted. Several are variations on those already described; however, it is of interest to examine variations across and within states. These other diploma options include: (a) alternative adult diploma (GED) and locally offered certificates (Alabama), (b) diploma options that vary by LEAs within individual states (Montana, Colorado, Connecticut, and Michigan), (c) certificate with a follow-up plan of action (IEP) related to meeting transition service needs (West Virginia), (d) advanced studies diploma and modified standard diploma (Virginia), (e) pre-GED/skills option certificate (Louisiana), (f) alternate completion diploma (Utah), and (g) certificate of completion of course requirements (Hawaii). Table 3 also illustrates the range of diploma options currently available within states.
All states reported offering a regular/standard diploma for students with and without disabilities. Significant levels of variation occur across states, however, in the offering of alternative diplomas for students. Further, several of these diploma options are limited to students with disabilities. Alabama’s occupational diploma, Virginia’s special diploma, and a range of other alternatives have been developed. These findings are comparable to those of the two earlier studies, Thurlow et al. (1995) and Guy et al. (1999). States are clearly experimenting with alternative diploma options in response to a variety of state and local interests. The general trend since 1995 has been for some states to increase their diploma options while other states are reducing the range of such options.
Respondents were also requested to provide information about the involvement of community stakeholders in discussions and decisions about the use of alternative diplomas. As states and LEAs continue to adopt the use of alternative diplomas, a pressing question is how these different diplomas are valued by key community stakeholders. Postsecondary education institutions and employers represent two critical groups of stakeholders. Their views and perspectives about alternative diploma options need to be considered. The question is whether graduating from high school with a standard diploma or alternative diploma or certificate grants students access to postsecondary education programs and future meaningful employment. Table 4 identifies states that involve community stakeholders in discussions concerning alternative diplomas. Few states currently involve either postsecondary education representatives or employers in such discussions. As shown in Table 4, for those states responding, eight states currently involve postsecondary education institutions and seven states involve the business community. Only six states (Alabama, Alaska, Florida, Mississippi, Oregon, and Wisconsin) indicated that they include both postsecondary education and business community representatives in a dialogue on alternative diploma options.
Table 4. Involvement of Community Stakeholders in Discussions
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response/NA
column indicate no response to this question.
State Use of Exit Exams—"High-Stakes" Testing
As noted earlier in this report, exit exams are not a new idea. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of states adopted policies and implemented minimum competency tests to ensure that students graduate from high school with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education programs, employment, and as citizens. The standards-based reform movement has revitalized discussions concerning the use of exit exams as a means of benchmarking student performance and as a means for receiving a high school diploma. The term "high-stakes testing" has been associated with the use of these exit exams. When the stakes are high for students, such as having the receipt of a high school diploma contingent on passing certain exit exams, the term "high-stakes testing" applies.
Several questions were posed to state special education directors in relation to their state’s use of exit exams. Because four states did not respond to the survey and an additional six states did not respond to the question about whether youth with disabilities were required to pass a state exit exam to receive a high school diploma, we searched policy documents for those states that did not respond to this question or to the survey. The numbers shown in Table 5 reflect both the survey responses and the document review. As shown in Table 5, 27 states require youth with disabilities to pass an exit exam in order to receive a high school diploma. Two of the states that did not require students with disabilities to pass a state exit exam did require that students pass a local exit exam (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).
Table 5. States Requiring Youth with Disabilities to Pass a State Exit Exam in Order to Receive High School Diploma
* Indicates states with exit exam policies found in other
sources; these are states that did not respond to either the item or the survey.
Twenty-seven states with an state exit exam reflects an increase in the total number of states reporting the use of exit exams as a requirement for youth with disabilities to receive a high school diploma, based on the findings of two earlier studies. Thurlow et al. (1995) identified 16 states where exit exams were linked to the student’s receipt of a diploma, and Guy et al. (1999) found 20 states with these policies. These findings are generally consistent with other national studies that have examined states’ use of graduation tests as a condition of receiving the standard diploma. In 1997, McDonnell, McLaughlin, and Morison identified 16 states using exit exams, and 18 states in 1998 (Heubert & Hauser, 1999). In a more recent study, Olson (2001) identified 20 states requiring students to pass exit exams as a requirement for receiving a high school diploma. The 2003 Quality Counts issue of Education Week identified 24 states that have or will have either exit exams or end-of-course exams required for graduation.
Discrepancies in numbers reported by different sources are sometimes due to different interpretations of what an "exit exam" is. We specifically wanted to identify tests that students had to pass to receive a high school diploma. Other states have exams (e.g., Michigan, Oregon), however, that are used to identify students who will receive mastery certificates, such as Oregon’s Certificate of Initial Mastery. Furthermore, some states that have graduation exams for earning a diploma also use those exams to identify students who will receive special endorsements, such as the honors endorsement in Arizona or the diploma with honors in Ohio.
Also indicated in Table 5 is the graduating class year first held to the exit exam requirement. Of the 27 states, a majority (17 states) currently have their exit examinations under way for graduating seniors. The remaining 10 states reported that policies were in place to implement "high-stakes testing" requirements in the near future (2004-2008). Some of these states previously had exams in place, but have new exams that will affect future classes. Several states have had exit exam requirements in place for many years. As shown in Table 5, Florida has required students with disabilities to pass an exit exam since 1983, Alabama since 1985, South Carolina since 1986, and Louisiana since 1989. Other states’ policies were new and the states were careful to clarify that responses applied to the time of the survey. For example, Massachusetts indicated that its responses were for the graduating class of 2003.
Table 6 presents graduation examination policies and practices by state for high school youth with and without disabilities. The 23 responding states, of those with state graduation exams, reported that they used the same examination and passing score standards for all graduating students. Two states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, also established different graduation examination tests and passing score standards for students with and without disabilities. In addition, Minnesota, indicated that it also applied different passing score standards for students with disabilities on the same exit tests taken by students without disabilities.
Table 6. Passing Scores on High School Exit Exam by States with Exit Exams
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response
column indicate no response to this survey question.
In examining trends in high school exit exams, some changes are noted. Guy et al. (1999) found, in their study of state policies and practices in 1998, that only 12 of 20 states with exams held students with and without disabilities to the same tests and passing scores. The current study identified 23 states with exams now holding students to the same testing standards (with an additional 4 exit exam states that did not respond). Only a few states appear to be using different passing scores and offering different tests and passing score options.
Also of interest is the range and variation of options extended to youth with disabilities if they fail exit exams. Table 7 identifies the range of options, which include: test-retake, having an alternate form of an exam made available, taking an exam that is altogether different, petitioning for an exemption while still receiving a diploma, and others. Of the 20 states with state exit exams that responded to this question, 16 states allow students with disabilities to retake the test, 5 states offer alternate form of the exam, 5 states allow students to take a different exam, and in 3 states students can petition for an exemption and still receive a diploma. In addition, 8 states reported other options for students who did not pass the exit exam to receive diplomas. These options included remediation of objectives if exams are failed, alternative methods of completion, IEP team determination, and others. Seven of the states with exit exams did not respond to this survey item. Several states allow LEAs to determine policies and practices concerning these options, and other states were in the process of discussing modifications of these options for students with and without disabilities.
Table 7. Options for Youth with Disabilities if They Fail the Exam
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response
column indicate no response to this survey question.
Table 8 lists those states that maintain records of high school exit examination scores. Of the 23 states with state exit exams responding to a question about records, 21 reported that they keep records on these scores, and 2 states reported that no records were maintained.
Table 8. Does State Maintain Records on Exit Exam?
NSR = No Survey Response; other checkmarks in the No Response column indicate no response to this survey question.
Table 9 identifies where the exam scores are reported, whether the information is available to students, and whether information is available by disability category. As illustrated in Table 9, a wide range of methods are used to report exam scores. These include: state report cards, Web sites, press releases, performance and assessment reports, state and local reports, and others. Of the 21 states that maintain exit exam records, 20 reported that they provided score information to students. Less than half of those states, however, maintained these records by disability category. These findings are also comparable to those of the earlier two studies, Thurlow et al. (1995) and Guy et al. (1999).
Table 9. Records for Those States That Do Keep a Record of the Exam…
Table 10 lists those states that maintain records of how youth with disabilities perform on exams that must be passed to graduate. Of the 21 states with state exit exams responding to the question, 20 reported that they keep records of exit examinations taken by students with disabilities; 1 state did not.
Table 10. Does State Keep Records on How Youth with Disabilities Perform on Exams that Must be Passed?