New Pathways to a Diploma for Students with Disabilities

Aug. 12, 2022Updated Oct. 5, 2022

Thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as those of their peers without disabilities. But between the idea and the reality, there is quite a bit of shadow. This is especially true when it comes to the ability of all students, disabled and not, to earn a high school diploma. Recently, California decided to change that.

​​In 2020, following a senate bill and allocation in the budget, the Alternate Pathways to a High School Diploma (Alt Pathways) Workgroup was formed to consider creating new pathways to a high school diploma for students with intellectual disabilities. The workgroup met for six months over 2021 and recently published their recommendations in a report.

High school diploma vs. certificate of completion

Historically, most students in California who have significant cognitive disabilities have earned a high school certificate of completion. Earning a high school diploma requires meeting state graduation requirements and, in many districts, additional A–G coursework required to attend a public university in California. (You can read more about these requirements below.)

As the Alt Pathways Workgroup notes in their report, there is currently no law that prevents an IEP team from allowing a student with disabilities to only meet minimum state requirements to earn a high school diploma. The trouble is, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) — which are public education boards that control public elementary and secondary schools in each city, county, school district, or other subdivision of the state — can decide whether to add additional local graduation requirements for their students, and whether they will allow some students to be exempt from them. And while IEP teams can ask their LEA for exemptions, many of them may not do so. The lack of a uniform policy means that opportunities for students with disabilities to earn a diploma are grossly unequal across the state.

For some students, not earning a traditional diploma “is not necessarily life-shattering or life-altering,” says Dr. Sarah Pelangka, special education advocate, BCBA-D, and owner of KnowIEPs. After all, “there are now many universities that offer four-year program options for students who were on an alternate curriculum and received a certificate of completion — such as UC Davis. Not receiving a diploma does not equate not having access to post-secondary opportunities.” Read more about these considerations in our article, Building a Goal-Oriented Future: Earning a Diploma or a Certificate of Completion.

But the reality is that having a high school diploma creates more options and opportunities for students. A pathway to earning a diploma gives students greater access to higher education, higher-income careers, greater independence, and a higher quality of life. It’s a rite of passage that should be within reach of all students.

The new pathway to a diploma: what to know

In their report, the Alt Pathways Workgroup looks at existing barriers to a diploma for students with disabilities, and explores how students with significant cognitive disabilities can obtain one.

In the spirit of the IDEA, and under a provision in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new pathway will allow students with significant cognitive disabilities to earn a diploma if they meet California’s Alternative Achievement Standards, which were developed specifically for students with significant cognitive disabilities to be able to access the same California State Standards as their peers without disabilities, but in a modified format with supports provided through each student’s IEP.

This diploma pathway is intended only for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who participate in a state’s alternate assessments (or CAAs) based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS). CAAs are also aligned with Core Content Connectors that follow the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

In sum, a diploma earned under the new pathway must be:

  • Standards-based
  • Aligned with state requirements for the regular high school diploma
  • Obtained within the time period (up to age 22) for which the state ensures the availability of a free appropriate public education (FAPE)

The proposed state minimum requirements are:

  • Three years of English using the CA Alternate Achievement Standards
  • Two years of math (no algebra required) using the CA Alternate Achievement Standards
  • Three years of social sciences (does not require specific courses)
  • Two years of science using the CA Alternate Achievement Standards (does not require biology or physical science)
  • Two years of physical education (PE)
  • One year of a foreign language or visual and performing arts or CTE

This diploma option will give students with significant cognitive disabilities the opportunity to earn a diploma that shows they have completed a rigorous standards-based program of study, and potentially provides them access to post-secondary education and employment opportunities that previously may have been denied to them.

It’s important to emphasize that this new diploma is considered the equivalent of a traditional high school diploma. Because of that, under ESSA, students earning this diploma will be counted in the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR), which is not allowed for other equivalents of diplomas (such as the general equivalency diploma, certificate of completion, certificate of attendance, and other similar “lesser credentials”).

The Alt Pathways Workgroup felt strongly about this. They wrote, “A diploma that was labeled or described as an ‘alternate diploma’ would result in the continued exclusion of students with disabilities from post-secondary opportunities, including employment.”

Additional pathways to graduation for students with IEPs

What steps can parents take NOW?

Thanks to $1 million in federal funds from IDEA that have been allocated in the state’s 2022 budget, students can graduate with the new diploma as early as next year (if their district has already allowed them to meet the minimum state requirements). Every district in California must offer this new pathway by the end of the 2023–24 school year.

There are some important conversations that parents need to have with their districts and IEP teams as soon as possible:

  • Your district needs to define precisely what “meeting the CA Alternate Achievements Standards” means. Your child’s progress toward meeting your district’s defined standards should be a topic of every IEP meeting.
  • Whether your child is in a special day classroom or included in their general education class for the majority of their day, they need to be working on standards-based goals and curriculum to earn a diploma. If your child works on functional life skills for most of their school day, this could definitely be a barrier to earning a diploma. We encourage families to discuss this with your child’s IEP team and clearly communicate the vision that you and your child have for their future.

Dr. Pelangka emphasizes that it’s imperative to start the discussion with your child’s IEP team now. “It is VERY important for parents to know that per the existing law, students in grades 7–12 have the right to ‘alternative means and modes to complete the prescribed course of study of the district and to meet or exceed proficiency standards for graduation,’” she says.

Three takeaways from all this?

  • Laying the groundwork for a diploma begins the moment a child enters school, so it’s critical to take a look at their IEP goals and make sure they are based on the state standards. Learn about standards-based goals so you can discuss this with your child’s IEP team.
  • If your child is already in middle or high school and does not have the requirements they need to work toward a diploma, there may still be time. Remember that it can take some kids longer to reach the same standards-based goals as their peers, and that’s okay. Students with disabilities have the option of staying in school until age 22 to meet the state graduation requirements.
  • Parents already have the right to ask for an exemption from local graduation requirements to allow their child the opportunity to graduate with a diploma under the state standards only. Learn about the state standards and ask your district what waivers are available to allow your child to earn a diploma. (California ed code 56101 allows a waiver to be granted in certain circumstances, such as with the requirement for Algebra 1.) Dr. Pelangka urges parents to learn what the state standards and their district’s waivers are, and talk to their IEP team. She explains, “Ask about things like Independent PE options, work experience, etc., as alternatives to certain class requirements.”



High school diploma vs. certificate of completion

The new pathway to a diploma: what to know

Additional pathways to graduation for students with IEPs

What steps can parents take NOW?

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