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An alternative way to a high school diploma

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The governor of the state of Louisiana has recently signed a bill that backers say will offer students with disabilities a new route to obtaining a high school diploma. But according to news sources, two national groups have issued a report criticizing this measure.

The key change in this legislation is that the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Team or the Multi-Factored Evaluation (MFE)Team will have the means to devise an alternative way to graduation with a high school diploma, no matter how the student achieves on the mandatory standardized tests.

Critics of this plan, Boston-based Center for Law and Education, a national disabilities advocacy group as well as the Advocacy Institute in Washington D.C., a not-for-profit group that aids the disabled, believe that this change gives the student’s IEP or MFE team too much authority. It would permit them to establish much lower standards for students with disabilities as well as distort Louisiana’s graduation rate.

The state of Louisiana currently has approximately 70,000 students with disabilities, including learning disabilities, speech and language concerns, autism, hearing and vision problems. The currently graduation rate for these students is 29% for those students with disabilities earning a traditional high school diploma.

Proponents of the law feel that it is appropriate to provide an alternative pathway with a high school diploma, not just a symbolic gesture. The measure went quickly through the state legislature and the governor signed it with little publicity. Opponents to the law believe that the new law will lower academic standards for students with disabilities and encourage schools to direct students into a less rigorous curriculum in order to improve the schools’ state rating.

Under current rules, most high school students with disabilities take the same standardized exams as their peers with varying success. The key part of this legislation would give new authority to teachers, district officials, parents and the other team members.

If an IEP determines that a student is not required to meet state or local performance standards, the panel can:

• Spell out alternative "rigorous" goals for the student.
• Devise an instructional program designed to better meet the student’s individualized needs.
• Offer innovative methods for the student to succeed, including flexible scheduling and online instruction.
• Identify a course of study that promotes, in most cases, workforce readiness.

Students who meet the IEP team's new criteria would be eligible for the same career diplomas that their peers earn, which are meant to prepare students for jobs, community or technical colleges.

Backers say the law would affect what state Superintendent of Education John White said are students "that have demonstrated persistent academic struggles” and only a small number of students would be impacted.

However, critics believe the new law gives the student's IEP team too much leeway to devise their own criteria for what a student needs to earn a diploma. The concern is students with disabilities are not being taught to the same standards, not being assessed to the same standards and they may not be receiving effective interventions. The law requires the state Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to craft rules that will guide IEP teams on whether students need a new route to graduation and how they will demonstrate their skills.

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