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special education diplomas
Julie Comeaux and son Matthew begin their home-schooling lesson for the day. Matthew has been home-schooled for the last year.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with the Huffington Post. Read the whole series, “Willing, able and forgotten: How high schools fail special ed students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.

Julie Comeaux’s 17-year-old son, Matthew, is a student with special needs. He has tuberous sclerosis, epilepsy and autism, but that hasn’t stopped him from being ambitious at school. He has worked hard to keep up with his peers despite his difficulties.

So when administrators at Matthew’s Louisiana high school suggested last year that he forgo getting a regular high school diploma and start working on a watered-down alternative diploma, Julie Comeaux was appalled.

The alternative diploma, attained through the LEAP Alternate Assessment, Level 1 (LAA1) graduation pathway, allows students with severe disabilities to forgo typical academic expectations and requirements, and it doesn’t end with the high school diploma.

It’s like school administrators wanted Matthew to “either sink to the level of getting a LAA1 diploma or swim with the big fish and fail,” said Comeaux, who lives in New Iberia, a small city near Lafayette. “My favorite comparison I see a lot is about asking a fish to climb a tree. I’m not asking Matthew to climb a tree. I’m asking him to swim a river, though it might be upstream.”

Related: Almost all students with disabilities are capable of graduating on time. Here’s why they’re not.

As of 2016, Louisiana and 23 other states had alternative diploma or certificate options specifically for students with disabilities, each state with its own system. On its face, this process seems to make sense. It gives students with special needs another option for coursework if they have trouble keeping up with the typical requirements.

In practice, this process is more complicated and sometimes relegates capable students into diluted settings, stunting their ability to not only learn in school but also to achieve later in life.

The stakes for these students are high. Diplomas, specifically for students with disabilities, usually fall short of what is required for college entrance. Employers often require a standard diploma for jobs. Even worse, not all parents are aware of these pitfalls when they agree to place their student on an alternative graduation track, causing them to unwittingly set their child up for years of low expectations.

However, there is not much research on the life outcomes of students with disabilities who attain high school diplomas versus those who get alternative exit documents.

Related: How one district solved its special education dropout problem

An alternative diploma or certificate track might work for many students, especially students with specific academic needs who have severe cognitive disabilities. It would not work for Matthew, Comeaux suspected. Her suspicion was confirmed when she eventually obtained sample LAA1 curricula from school leaders and saw that they would be remedial for Matthew.

Comeaux, who has made it a point to educate herself about the intricacies of special education policy, told administrators she would not be taking her child off the regular diploma track.

But most parents do not have the expertise to make such a decision.

special education diplomas
Julie and Matthew high-five during a home-school lesson.

When parents and kids hear the word “certificate,” “to them that means it’s a document that is similar to a regular diploma and has the same value. And that’s not the case,” said Candace Cortiella, the director of The Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that works on behalf of people with disabilities. “A lot of times kids don’t find that out until way too late.”

Who is in Special Education?

Students who are diagnosed with one or more of the 13 disabilities covered by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act qualify for special education. Those disabilities include learning disabilities, autism, emotional disturbance, and hearing impairment. Within each disability, there is variance in severity and how the disability reveals itself in a classroom.

Throughout his time in school, Comeaux always felt that Matthew might be overlooked if she didn’t stay vigilant on his behalf. Her fear is well-founded. Although an estimated 90 percent of students with disabilities should be able to meet the same graduation standards as their peers, the national graduation percentage for students with disabilities lingers in the mid-60s.

The accuracy of these numbers, though, is fuzzy. States have been known to calculate these rates in disparate ways. States sometimes count students with disabilities who receive a regular diploma through alternative requirements, and sometimes they do not. It is unclear how many students with disabilities leave high school with an exit document other than a regular diploma, according to Martha Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota, a group that researches students with disabilities.

“There’s no way of monitoring how often kids are tracked inappropriately,” Thurlow said.

“We don’t even know how often kids are tracked, period.”

Related: Special education’s hidden racial gap

Louisiana, where Matthew has always attended school, has its own specific challenges. The state has one of the lowest graduation rates for students with disabilities in the country and one of the largest gaps in graduation rates between students with disabilities and other students. As recently as 2011, more students with disabilities in Louisiana dropped out than graduated.

Future improvement is unclear. The Every Student Succeeds Act ― a federal education law passed in 2015 ― allows states to create a state-defined alternative diploma that’s aligned with regular requirements.

Comeaux conceded that administrators’ concerns about Matthew did not arise in a vacuum. Matthew’s condition is intense. Tuberous sclerosis causes non-cancerous tumors to develop in the brain. A few years ago, he also started having stress-induced seizures, causing him to miss large chunks of middle school, putting him at a disadvantage for his freshman year. He is also autistic and has some cognitive delay, Comeaux said.

While Matthew is outgoing ― he has memorized the schedules of his favorite cashiers at the grocery store and loves to visit them ― he had a poor experience with school staff in middle school, and in high school he became increasingly anxious and prone to outbursts. The low score on a psychiatrist-conducted evaluation of his behavior meant he “qualified” for the LAA1 path.

Related: Low academic expectations and poor support for special education students are ‘hurting their future’

But Comeaux felt that none of these issues precluded her son from achieving in an academically rigorous environment.

They “didn’t bring up his ability to do the work,” Comeaux said of that January 2016 meeting. “He’s not a child we’re teaching to push a broom.”

Comeaux eventually decided to pull Matthew out of New Iberia Senior High School and try home-schooling. Matthew’s behavior, happiness and academics have all improved. He will eventually graduate with a regular diploma, and Comeaux hopes to see him go on to attend a two-year college.

District officials did not respond to requests for comment on Matthew’s experience.

special education diplomas
Julie Comeaux started home-schooling her 17-year-old son, Matthew, when the school district suggested he be placed in an alternative diploma program.

Still, Comeaux wishes there had been a middle ground to address the challenges Matthew was facing. In this ideal world, Matthew would be able to stay in school and graduate with a regular diploma but advance through the curriculum at a slower pace than his peers.

The desire for more ― or at least better ― options is one that parents of children with disabilities understand well.

Gena Mitchell’s 15-year-old daughter, Devin, is on the certificate track at school in Maryland. She placed her daughter, who has Down syndrome, on this track during the sixth grade. She’s just now beginning to realize what this decision might mean for Devin’s future.

Devin spends her days in an inclusive, general education environment but receives modified work. It’s a system that has generally worked well for Devin. She takes pride in showing improvement on assignments while thriving socially with her peers.

But this year, once assignments started counting for college, Devin stopped receiving grades on her report card. The document simply says, “No grade.”

Related: The vast majority of students with disabilities don’t get a college degree

Mitchell always assumed that Devin would go on to college. She’s just realizing how this lack of grades could affect these plans.

“That’s my next step: to look and see, what does this mean for her in the long term? What does this mean for what is possible for her?” Mitchell said.

Mitchell knows her daughter would never be able to follow the same curriculum as her peers. But she also knows that her daughter has achieved strong gains and works hard. Her daughter takes classes including Spanish and astronomy. She can read the same books as her peers ― even if they’re in a modified format. That has to be worth something.

“It was the best information I had,” Mitchell said of putting her daughter on the certificate track. “If I lived in other parts of the country, my daughter could graduate with a diploma with modified work.”

Indeed, for students with disabilities, different areas of the country can have vastly different expectations.

“There are states holding students with disabilities to just about the same graduation requirements as their non-disabled peers, and then there are other states allowing all kinds of funny business in the name of trying to be accommodating,” Cortiella said. “We have kids leaving high school with diplomas they think are worth something, and in many cases they actually aren’t.”

But in the world of special education, more options don’t always mean better options. There are limited data on the issue. It is unclear whether states with only one diploma track produce more successful students with disabilities. There is a dearth of research on the topic.

“Does a state with only one diploma mean people work harder to make sure [students with disabilities] get that diploma rather than saying, ‘Oh well, we can get them a certificate’? I just don’t think we have good data,” Thurlow said.

Special Education Glossary

IEP: Every student covered under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act receives an IEP, or an Individual Education Program. This lengthy plan details a student’s current performance levels, goals for the next year, the classes a student will take, and any accommodations or modifications the student will receive in classes.

Transition plan: The transition plan is part of an Individual Education Program and must be developed before a student with a disability turns 16, according to federal law. This plan uses student interests and other information about a student to outline post-high school goals.

Accommodations: Accommodations include strategies like allowing a student to take extra time on a test, type an assignment instead of hand writing it, or sit in an area that helps a student focus. These are described in a student’s IEP.

Modifications: Modifications are changes in assignments and curriculum meant to assist students with disabilities in mastering content, such as providing fewer answer choices on assignments or tests, or providing text at an appropriate reading level for a student.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with HuffPost. Read the whole series, “Willing, Able and Forgotten: How High Schools Fail Special Ed Students,” here. Sign up for our newsletter.

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  1. In Texas, all required courses must be from ‘regular-ed’ for the diploma, yet often the parent is not advised when a course won’t qualify. So, for example, if a student’s sophomore, junior and senior English credits were ‘regular-ed’, but freshman English was ‘Special Ed’, the student seeking a diploma must go back and retake freshman English. When finding this out at the end of the senior year, many families cave and take the attendance certificate. To solve this: Parental signature should be required for each course on the sped track.

  2. I was in special Ed I can read,spell and even read decent enough but I’ve known kids who were in special Ed and can’t spell barely read and only know adding and subtracting and if they are lucky can count money, even though I was in special Ed I’m starting to wonder how these kids will survive in the real world with less than a second grade education some of the kids I can understand especially when they have a mentality of a 2 year old and won’t ever live on their own when others are more than capable of learning the stuff you would need to know to survive in the real world or at least the basics for the real world I’ve pushed myself since I was in third grade to learn the stuff I didn’t know how to do and i remember kids who would only do “easy stuff” because the other stuff was “too hard “ to learn when I feel like it’s just taking the easy way in school what about the real world no one gets the “easy pass” in the real world since I graduated I taught myself how to do algebra even calculus I know teachers have to follow laws and ieps in this area but sometimes you have to teach stuff to children that are new because what they are currently learning is “too easy “

  3. How does my daughter get a ged or diploma. She is turning 21 n is special needs but wants a ged or diploma. School district in Marysville washington gave up on her but she isn’t giving up. Need help for her to acheive her goal.

  4. In NYC , educators realized how unconstitutional it is to allow a child with an IEP to go to school , take state boards (Regents) pass or fail , then issue them certificates that are not worth the paper they are written on. Kids going to college if they receive certificates have been told , that their certificate/diploma is not worth the paper it’s written on. CUNY are stating when presented with these certificates that all the paper is saying is that the student completed (12) years of schooling. They are refused admissions. CUNY is saying technically the student did not graduate. Because the certificate /paper they have is nit a diploma. My daughters school in 2015-2016 her advisors stated that there would no longer be certificate diplomas. Everyone would receive a regular high school diploma unless they passed the regents with a 65 or better. I am trying to find the documentation to back this up to assist a family member, but having no luck. Can anybody assist me with locating this addendum to NYS/NYC High school diplomas , guidelines???

  5. Hi . My name is Raj . My son is 17 . He will get his completation certificate next year . He shouldn’t be a special kid . He only have one problem to count things. .but he is very smart and hard working everything else . What are the options .let me know . Thank uou

  6. Hi can you give me some information on adult high school diploma for special education

  7. It pisses me off that the best my 16-year-old daughter’s going to be able to get from her POS school is an IEP or as I call it sympathy diploma from the state of New York next June at 18 (yes, I can do the math – she’ll be 17 before the end of this school year). It’s like they want all special education kids to be stupid and I’ve seen a lot that are anything, but stupid. I don’t know why the hell they got rid of the RCT (Regents Competency Test). I would not have graduated without it.

  8. hello,i have been going back to school for a year,my husband joined me a few months ago,and i was going to get my brother going.when i went to go get his diploma and sent it to the school that i go to they said they did not take special diplomas.My brother was in emr classes in school because he gets words backwards sometimes,They put special on his diploma.My school will not accept him,does anyone know of where i could get him in college,it can be online.

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