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Students with disabilities would no longer be able to graduate with an “occupational diploma,” an option meant for students who are unable to meet the requirements of a standard diploma, under a bill proposed by Senate Education Chair Gray Tollison, R-Oxford.

The occupational diploma is intended to prepare students with disabilities for a job as well as recognize effort in high school, but data show it has been handed out liberally in Mississippi, despite the fact that there are few college and career options for students who earn that diploma. Those students do not take the same high school courses as their peers who are pursuing a regular diploma. Instead, they take 20 hours of course credit in classes like “Job Skills Math” and “Employment English,” as well as classes in career and technical education.  They also must complete 540 hours of paid work and submit a portfolio including work samples and tests prior to graduating.

During the 2014-15 school year, nearly 37 percent of Mississippi’s students with disabilities received an alternate diploma or certificate of attendance, according to federal data. That’s down from more than 60 percent in the 2011-12 school year.

Although the occupational diploma may be an appropriate option for some students with disabilities, a 2013 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities found that Mississippi was the worst in the nation when it came to handing out alternate diplomas to students with learning disabilities, which experts say do not necessarily preclude a student from mastering a general education curriculum. A 2014 investigation by The Hechinger Report found that students who receive occupational diplomas are often unable to find jobs and enroll in higher education because many employers, colleges and universities do not recognize the diplomas as an adequate sign of high school completion.

The proposed bill fits into a plan by Mississippi officials to revamp diploma options for graduates for the 2017-18 school year, according to a November story by Mississippi Today. Schools would offer one diploma with different “endorsements,” such as career tech or science, technology, engineering and math.

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