Considering Alternate Diplomas and Certificates for Students with IEPs

Students with IEPs often have atypical school experiences. They might follow the general education curriculum with some support, or they might work on learning to get dressed. Performance expectations vary with their disabilities. Unsurprisingly, their paths to graduation diverge from the norm.

Options for completing high school are broader for students with IEPs than for their peers. Most graduate according to whatever requirements are in place for the majority of students. Others graduate by meeting their stated IEP goals. A few exit school at twenty-one more than they truly graduate. Their programs stop regardless of their progress.

Recognizing the various graduation paths for special education students and how these differ from traditional paths, states and school districts have responded with multiple ways to acknowledge program completion. Controversy begins here. The initial question is about equity, but surrounding circumstances are more about accountability. If students with IEPs complete non-traditional paths to graduation, how should their efforts be noted? Should they get traditional diplomas regardless of requirements, or should they be awarded in a way reflecting their actual achievements? Answering these questions can be complicated and revealing.

A dominant trend in education is adherence to standards. The bulk of students with IEPs follow a standards-based curriculum, but even these students veer from general education expectations by leaning on IEPs. Their defenders say accommodations grant equitable and comparable opportunities, therefore these students deserve typical diplomas. This argument becomes strained for students needing modified content.

Select students with IEPs work towards standards, just not grade level standards. The vagueness of and redundancy between standards reduces the significance of grade level adherence. However, a high school student following a functional academic curriculum based on rudimentary skills plainly isn’t doing high school work. Comparisons completely cease for students working on basic life skills such as feeding and hand washing. Looking beyond the curriculum, many students with IEPs are either excused from having to actually pass statewide competency tests required for graduation, or they can take alternate tests. Some of these same students can be excused from required senior projects. The truth is many students with IEPs do not have to complete traditional high school requirements.

Alternate means of recognizing program completion are reserved primarily for these students. States use certificates of attendance or achievement, vocational diplomas, and even special education diplomas. Certificates show that students participated in or completed a program, but the program wasn’t based on general education standards or curricula. Special education diplomas do the same, but usually after credit, course, and performance criteria have been lessened.

By qualifying the degrees awarded to students with IEPs, states and school districts acknowledge that these students followed alternate paths to graduation. To counter the argument of those claiming students with IEPs still deserve traditional diplomas, the qualified degrees recognize the equitable work the students have performed while specifying the nature of this work. This doesn’t satisfy all decriers. A debate over fairness could ensue, but state and school district motivation for these different degrees isn’t about fairness.

Before discussing the genuine motivation, consider what high school diplomas are worth to the general public. They are cheap. Most people have one. Possessing one is taken for granted in some sets. Not having one garnishes more attention. To some, a high school diploma may represent a momentous accomplishment. To most, it doesn’t.

Further diminishing their value is what they offer, or perhaps what they don’t. Earning potential for those with a high school diplomas alone lags behind those with nearly any form of post-secondary education or training. Conversely, in the most blighted communities, the difference between having and not having one might be nil due to the community’s dearth of opportunities. This can make bothering to get one not seem worth the effort.

Value becomes more questionable upon examining graduation paths for general education students. Examination quickly spirals into philosophical inquiry. Some high schools are more rigorous than others. Courses of study within them have varying demands. Graduation rates are low enough in certain schools that essentially handing out diplomas is necessary to offset attrition. Every student is different, leading to notions of equitable difficulty for students in vocational versus advanced programs. Even as efforts mount to solidify national standards, can any two diplomas be considered equivalent indicators of aptitude and accomplishment?

This returns the discussion to students with IEPs. Apparently, graduation paths vary for all students. Arguing that awarding diplomas to students with IEPs diminishes diploma value is nearly facetious. Diplomas already carry low value. Furthermore, relatively few students have IEPs. The value of a diploma might matter most to the special education student. It could be his or her terminal degree and possibly the highlight of a resume. Students and parents haven’t been clamoring for alternate recognition. Even if these students aren’t strictly beholden to standards, why not just award diplomas in all cases?

Again, the issue isn’t just about fairness or value. It isn’t merely a matter of accurately recognizing achievement. States and school districts have another motivation: accountability.

Under the ESEA/NCLB, states and school districts must report graduation rates. The states establish criteria. Many states include competency tests with their requirements. Credit completion within a standards-based curriculum is required by most. Students with IEPs can jeopardize performance on these measures. If states change graduation requirements for these students and offer alternate paths that all lead to graduation (with corresponding and legitimizing recognition), states can assure improved graduation rates while preserving test averages.

The alternate paths benefit states and school districts. They might undermine outcomes for students. Most students receiving certificates or alternate diplomas won’t seek competitive employment or post-secondary education. For the few who do, employers or programs might not accept diplomas that come with a disclaimer. Those touting the rights of these students can continue to argue that equitable effort deserves equitable recognition while claiming alternate diplomas or certificates impede post-secondary outcomes. Whenever anyone perceives right infringement involving students with disabilities, litigation is likely to follow.

The issue becomes more complicated as tests are considered. Counter-intuitively, many anti-testing parents are seeking to have their children identified for services to get support for or even exclusion from standardized tests (previously, parents sued to have their identified children tested like all other students). More insidiously, poor performance on standardized tests could become a new compensatory education opportunity for parents. Attorneys might successfully suggest students fail not because of inappropriate tests, but because schools didn’t effectively address deficient aptitudes. Why wait until now to press for this? The tests provide detailed, criterion-referenced evidence. States and school districts could be wise to keep these students away from such tests.

So what is best? In the spirit of special education, there isn’t a best. Rather than states absolving some students from requirements out of self-preservation, graduation criteria and acknowledgements should be IEP team decisions. According the IDEA, they already are. State level planning hasn’t reflected this exactly. States have been putting options in place, which seems like a special needs-sensitive move until motivations are considered. IEP teams must be assertive. The importance of transition planning can’t be over stated. Conversations about transition must be thorough, forward thinking, and realistic. As mentioned in a previous post, such conversations aren’t easy to cultivate. The point, as always, must be what will work for the student.

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Considering Alternate Diplomas and Certificates for Students with IEPs

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