Special Education

For Special Education Students, ‘Regular Diplomas’ Can be Watered Down

By Christina A. Samuels — November 18, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Special Education Opinion Inclusive Teachers Must Be 'Asset-Based Believers'
Four veteran educators share tips on supporting students with learning differences as they return to classrooms during this pandemic year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Opinion 20 Ways to Support Students With Learning Differences This Year
Embed student voices and perspectives into the classroom is one piece of advice educators offer in this third pandemic-affected school year.
16 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Special Education Schools Must Identify Students With Disabilities Despite Pandemic Hurdles, Ed. Dept. Says
Guidance stresses schools' responsibilities to those with disabilities, while noting that federal COVID aid can be used to address backlogs.
2 min read
School children in classroom with teacher, wearing face masks and raised hands
Special Education Attention Deficit Rates Skyrocket in High School. Mentoring Could Prevent an Academic Freefall
Twice as many students are diagnosed with ADHD in high school as in elementary school, yet their supports are fewer, a study says.
4 min read
Image of a child writing the letters "ADHD" on a chalkboard.