Building a Goal-Oriented Future: Diploma vs. Certificate of Completion
What a referral to “alternate curriculum” can mean for a diploma
For this reason, Dr. Solone advises parents to keep students in their general education classroom as long as possible, and continuously work to find entry points for them through the use of accommodations and modifications — you can read much more about that here. If and when students do work from a modified curriculum, they should still have a standards-based education and IEP goals, and they should be making meaningful progress on those goals.
How can I make sure my child is given all opportunities to work toward a diploma?
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) regulations include a provision — 200.6 (d) — that says the state must “promote, consistent with requirements under the IDEA, the involvement and progress of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in the general education curriculum that is based on the State’s academic content standards for the grade in which the student is enrolled.”
Sabia explains, “The important piece of the ESSA provision is that the student should be allowed to work toward [a diploma] and go as far as they can go — even if they don’t meet the requirements in the end, they will get a more individualized, standards-based education.” And, she adds, the ESSA regulations “have the force of law.”
For this reason, Sabia suggests making sure your child isn’t taken off the diploma track prematurely because “you just don’t know what a student is going to be able to accomplish.” She points out that states often give students with IEPs more time to graduate, and graduation requirements evolve over time. (For more on this, see our article New Pathways to a Diploma for Students with Cognitive Disabilities.
While parents should be aware of the implications of using modified or “alternate” curriculum in elementary and middle school, Sabia feels that high school is the best time to make diploma decisions. “The more we keep kids on grade-level content and try to find entry points for them on that, the further they’re going to go.”
If the student is able to pass a required class per state guidelines to obtain a diploma — with or without accommodations — they will be eligible for a passing grade. If the student receives modifications in the class, they may pass as long as the modification does not significantly alter what is being taught and what the student is required to produce. Dr. Pelangka explains in this clip:
Standardized state testing, alternate testing, and opting out
Sabia recommends that parents find the alternate assessment participation criteria on their state’s Department of Education website. If possible, it’s a good idea to become familiar with the criteria before an IEP meeting so you have the information you need to decide whether or not your child should take an alternate assessment. (See guidance on California’s alternate assessment criteria here.)
Remember that taking an alternate assessment does not change the grade level standards expected of the student. The TIES Center says that “students who take an alternate assessment are expected to master the same standards as other students but with less breadth, depth, and complexity—depending on each student’s unique needs and abilities.”
And remember that taking alternate assessments does not mean a student cannot still work toward a diploma. According to IDEA 300.160, a state should “not preclude a student with the most significant cognitive disabilities who takes an alternate assessment aligned with alternate academic achievement standards from attempting to complete the requirements for a regular high school diploma.”
While state assessments help keep schools accountable and provide teachers — and parents — with a measure of a student’s progress, Dr. Pelangka reminds us that a student has the option of opting out of state testing altogether. To opt out, parents should inform the school in writing and make sure the decision is also included in the IEP notes.
Note that if your child is pursuing a diploma under California’s Alternative Achievement Standards, they cannot opt out of the alternate assessments their 11th grade year. They are required to take the state test that year in order to be eligible for a diploma. We will update this article as we receive clarifications on testing requirements for any year outside of 11th grade.
What are the requirements for a high school diploma?
What are the consequences of not receiving a diploma?
Strictly speaking, earning a diploma means that a student has met the requirements for graduation, and earning a certificate of completion means the student has finished high school without completing all the requirements. Having a certificate rather than a diploma will disqualify a student from some post-secondary options but not permanently. For example, many students with disabilities who do not receive a diploma transition to community college after high school, as this allows for engagement with career classes, work experience, and completing post-secondary educational goals without having to meet the university system requirements. They still have the option of transferring to a four-year university later. As Dr. Pelangka puts it, “The certificate track does not mean one cannot attend college, become employed, or get student aid; it is simply a different post-secondary route.”
The “consequences” fully depend on each family and the desires for their child, Dr. Pelangka says. “Some families value education and going to a four-year university more than others. Some families want their child to experience graduation with a diploma. With a certificate, the student participates in graduation but then has the option to return to the district in a post-secondary program.”
It’s important to note that many colleges, employers, and some branches of the military require a diploma. (Students without a diploma can still apply for federal financial aid, thanks to the Ability to Benefit Act.) More opportunities are becoming available as universities become more inclusive. For example, UC Davis has the Redwood SEED Scholars Program, a four-year, non-degree program for students with intellectual disabilities. These students will be able to attend classes, live in the dorms, make friends, find peer support, and have access to the same college experiences as their neurotypical peers.
California offers College to Career (C2C) programs throughout the state, including Pathway at UCLA Extension, the College of Adaptive Arts in San Jose, and private college opportunities. Think College’s College Search Tool includes inclusive college programs across the country. The California Department of Education also suggests using the Big Future College Board website to search for schools that meet your child’s needs.
What to expect on a certificate of completion track
The CA Transition Alliance states that students working toward a certificate should “have significant cognitive impairments, take alternative assessments, and [be] unable to demonstrate subject matter competence in diploma track classes, even with differential proficiency standards, accommodations, and modifications to the courses and curriculum required to do so.” (They define a student with significant cognitive impairments as “one who requires extensive individualized instruction and a substantial amount of supports in order to meet and progress with the state academic standards.”)
Students on the certificate path will attend graduation and participate in transition services from the school district. They will also have access to more elective courses and many (non-degree) community college classes. Students without a diploma may still attend community colleges and trade schools that don’t require diplomas, and they can transition to independent living classes available at inclusive colleges. Here’s a list of California community colleges, as well as a list of state-approved trade and technical schools.
Is there a reason not to earn a high school diploma?
Attorney Meira Amster cautions parents that “a lot of considerations should go into whether a child graduates, based on the services and supports they can receive and what services Regional Center might provide.” She says that in some cases, the decision to pursue a diploma can wait until as late as twelfth grade, and that the decision should be made according to the goals of the individual student and what services and supports they’ll need after high school. While there are some transition services, such as job coaching, that Regional Center will not offer until after a student graduates, the option of staying within the school district until twenty-two might give students the last opportunity they’ll have to work toward academic goals.
Attorney Grace Clark adds that it’s essential to weigh “the likelihood that the child can meet all the standards necessary to graduate with the benefits of working at a pace that is appropriate for them, among same-aged peers.”
What happens to special education services once a diploma or certificate is earned?
What if I disagree with the IEP team’s decision?
Dr. Pelangka notes that just as with any other part of the IEP, a parent should never consent to an IEP team’s decision on whether a student will work toward a diploma or certificate of completion if they do not agree. The parent should go through the IEP in detail to ensure that all appropriate accommodations and modifications are in place, work to refine a student’s goals, and request any additional assessments they feel are needed. Moving from a certificate to a diploma track (or vice-versa) may also require a change of placement, which would require additional evaluations and a meeting with the IEP team.
Dr. Pelangka explains: “Realistically it’s a matter of what the student can access in high school, but the rights are the same as everything else. A parent can disagree and go up the ladder from there.” For more information on what to do if you disagree with any part of your child’s IEP, read our article, How to Review Your IEP Before Signing.
Do you have questions about supporting your child in working toward a high school diploma or certificate of completion? Let us know!