NCEO Policy Directions
Published by the National Center on Educational Outcomes
Diploma Options and Graduation Policies for Students with Disabilities
Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced and distributed without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:
Thurlow, M., & Thompson, S. (2000). Diploma options and graduations policies for students with disabilities (Policy Directions No. 10). 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/Policy10.htm
Discussions of diploma options for students with disabilities often are heated. Arguments focus on the meaning of a high school diploma versus the possible negative long-term effects for youth who do not receive diplomas. The consequences of graduation and diploma policies last well beyond the time when a student is in school. Efforts to make the high school diploma mean something should be combined with efforts to prevent negative effects on students.
As more and more states and districts implement graduation tests, they are faced with several questions. For example, is a standard diploma the only option that should be available to students? Should there be some type of diploma for students who do not pass the test but who meet other criteria? Should there be another type of diploma available just to students with disabilities? If more than one type of diploma is available, what specific requirements should be aligned with each diploma option?
Questions about diploma options generate additional questions about other graduation testing policies. For example:
In this report, we identify the issues to consider when answering these questions. We also provide suggestions for establishing inclusive and fair diploma options and graduation policies.
Many kinds of diplomas and certificates are used across the U.S. to document that a student has completed school. Some of these diplomas and certificates are just for students receiving special education services. Few states have only the standard diploma available to students. Some states have tests that students must pass to earn a diploma, while others do not.
We focus in this report on the issues and recommendations for diploma and certificate options when tests are part of the graduation requirement. At this time, there are 16 states that have had their exams in place long enough to affect a graduating class. Many more states have developed graduation exams that students in future graduating classes will have to pass to receive a standard diploma. Additional states have just begun to develop the exams that have been legislated. Add to these, numerous local exams to determine whether students will receive diplomas.
The 16 states with active graduation exams have diploma options that reflect the interesting array of diplomas and certificates and criteria for earning them that currently exists across the U.S. The diploma and certificate options fall within four general categories, each of which has advantages and disadvantages (see Table 1). While we highlight here what is happening in states, these apply as well to local level diploma options.
Table 1. Advantages and Disadvantages of Four Diploma Options
Same for All
Only six of the states with graduation exams have the same diplomas and certificates available to all students (Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas). Having the same diplomas and certificates available to all students does not necessarily mean that all students are expected to earn them in the same way. For example, in one of the six states, students with disabilities are required to complete the same coursework as other students, but can be exempted from the test and still receive a standard diploma. There are no other options for students without disabilities—they must pass the test and complete required coursework. However, an appeals process is available to all students.
Special Options for Some?
Nine states with graduation exams have special diplomas or certifi-cates that can be earned only by students with disabilities on IEPs (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, and North Carolina). The names of the special diplomas and certificates include IEP Diploma, Adjusted Diploma, Occupational Diploma, Gradua-tion Certificate, and a variety of others.
Another approach is to have special notations, either on the standard diploma or on a related document (such as the transcript). For example, one state, whose class of 2000 is the first that must pass the state’s graduation test, the specific conditions of testing are noted on the student’s progress record. For example, students with disabilities who either pass the test at a lower level or who use a non-approved accommodation (such as have the reading test read aloud), have the notation "Pass Individual" marked on the progress record. Those students who pass under the same conditions as other students, or who use approved accommodations, have the notation "Pass State Level" noted.
Issues to Address When Only Standard Diploma are Available
If a state or district decides to have only a standard diploma, requiring students with disabilities to pass the same test as other students means that the state must have a broad and fair assessment. Two issues must be addressed: (1) what to do when a student needs non-approved accommodations, and (2) deciding whether a phase-in approach makes sense.
There are some accommodations that students need in order to have access to a test. Students who are blind and have not learned to read Braille (as in a recent case) are essentially denied access to the assessment if the test is not read to them, regardless of whether the test’s content is mathematics, reading, or some other content area. The same argument can be made for students with significant reading disabilities, and other conditions as well. Denying access to the assessment because of the effects of a disability, especially when the assessment provides access to a benefit (such as a diploma), is likely to raise many concerns.
Providing a certificate of attendance for these students does not seem to be reasonable since it could be argued that they have met the standards and simply are not being allowed to appropriately show their mastery of them. One approach is to have a special request process, through which students needing non-approved accommodations could request permission from the state to use specific accommodations, with the reason for needing the accommodation documented. For these students, test performance might be just one part of a larger body of evidence required for meeting graduation requirements. Before taking this approach, it would be wise to get an estimate of how many students there are who need non-approved accommodations. If there are too many students, consideration should be given to expanding the range of approved accommodations or developing more inclusive and accessible tests.
A Phase-In Approach
Historically, students with disabilities have been either excluded from the general education curriculum, or have received a watered-down version of the curriculum. While there are pockets where students have indeed had the same exposure and opportunities that other students have had to master the general education curriculum, for the most part this is not the case. As a result, it is inappropriate to expect that today’s ninth grade students have had equal access to the general education curriculum and standards.
Because of significant questions about opportunity to learn, it might be wise to implement an extended phase-in of the requirements for students with disabilities. For example, those students now in elementary school would be the first required to meet the graduation requirements.
Requirements for Different Diploma Options
If a state or district decides to have multiple diploma options, it must consider requirements for each option. If it is determined that completion of credits does count—seat-time and exposure to content is important, and therefore deserving of recognition—then a name should be applied to a document earned in this way. Thus, students who complete current requirements for courses and credits would earn a certificate of completion, a certificate of achievement, a certificate of attendance, a high school certificate, or some other named certificate. Many names for the certificate documents not specifically for special education students are currently in use. Regardless of the specific diploma options that are available to students, it is important for states and districts to clarify the requirements for each type of diploma, and to make this information widely available.
Requirements for Different Diploma Options
When there are graduation tests there is often pressure to increase the number of opportunities for students to take the test, and to move the retest times closer to the time of instruction. If field test items are included in each administration of the test, there may be pressure to remove these items when students retake the test, thereby resulting in shorter forms of the test.
How re-testing interacts with disability issues should be considered. Re-testing must be available to students with disabilities just as often as it is to other students. This means that special editions of the test are needed, and accommodations need to be provided during re-testing. Some states have found that decision makers request additional accommodations with each re-take, under the belief that more accommodations will give students the benefit needed to pass (or, perhaps, with the recognition that certain accommodations really are needed even though the student hoped not to need them). Changing rules about test format, administration procedures, or testing accommodations for re-testing must be addressed.
Students who do not pass the graduation test, even after taking the test on repeated occasions, are likely to follow one of three pathways. First, they may drop out of school. Second, they may continue to re-take the test until they complete all their coursework. Third, they may bring a lawsuit. It is desirable to reduce the number of students doing either the first or the third of these options.
Dropout prevention strategies need to be addressed and implemented. In addition, an appeals process that ensures fair consideration of individual student needs may reduce the number of lawsuits. Little is known currently about the number of states with appeals processes in place. However, they do exist. Typically, the process is open to all students, with or without disabilities. The nature of this process should be defined before the need for it arises.
Suggestions for Inclusive and Fair Diploma Options and Graduation Policies
The considerations highlighted in this report suggest several avenues to take toward establishing a set of diploma option policies that are reasonable, yet fair, to all students, including students with disabilities. Among the suggestions are the following:
Have the same diploma options available to
Recognize that not all students
demonstrate high-level knowledge and skills in the same way.
Give names to diploma options that correspond
to the knowledge and skills demonstrated by the student.
Clarify the implications of different diploma
options for continued special education services.
Get input from stakeholder groups about
diploma options and policies.
Use the media to explain the diploma options
to the public.
Table 2. Exit Options with Names Reflecting Skills
Including students with disabilities in graduation exams raises many issues that can be addressed up front, before they undermine the program. One of the issues is whether there should be diploma options designated just for these students. As states and districts consider the possibility of differentiated diploma options, the requirements that would be attached to different options, re-testing, and an appeals process, there is a need to step back each time to consider the intended and unintended consequences of each alternative.
The quagmire of low expectations, off-target teaching, and denial of responsibility for students with disabilities forms a tragic set of unintended consequences that rise to the surface when addressing accountability and students with disabilities. Balancing these against a desire to be fair to students and to not harm them creates significant challenges for states and districts today. While difficult, this is certainly better than avoiding the issues, only to find that they have grown rather than disappeared.
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