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High School and Getting a Diploma: Options for Students with Disabilities

Knowing the Options to get a H.S. Diploma
Knowing the Options to get a H.S. DiplomaSteps4Kids, LLC

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In California, in order to obtain a diploma, students in public schools must pass the California High School Exit Exam (“CAHSEE”) and the courses required by the local school board. In general, once students pass the courses with at least a 2.0 grade point average and the CAHSEE, they are eligible to receive a diploma.

Note: If a student receives a “D” in a required class, depending on the district’s policy, the student may be able to use the credits to graduate from high school but the class will not count towards admission eligibility to a UC/CSU school. The IEP team should review the local district’s graduation policy for specific details.

Unfortunately, per data collected in 2011 and 2012, approximately 40% of students with disabilities fail to obtain a high school diploma and 40-60% fail to pass the California High School Exit Exam (Legislative Analysis Office for the State of California). The drop out rate for students with disabilities is also “approximately twice that of general education students.” (Issue Brief: Students with Disabilities who Drop Out of School – Implications for Policy and Practice, M. Thurlow, M. Sinclair, and D. Johnson, 2002, National Center on Secondary Education). Although this existing data predates recent developments such as California’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards (“CCSS”), and the trend among local districts to require that students pass “A-G” (college prep) courses to get a diploma, many advocacy groups anticipate that these developments will only further negatively impact the already low graduation rates for students with disabilities.

Is getting a diploma becoming impossible for student with disabilities? To some students with disabilities, pursuit of a high school diploma may appear as an unrealistic option. (See: Requiring “A-G” Classes for High School: Raising Expectations or Just a Hurdle?”). But, before a team selects the non-diploma “certificate bound” option on an IEP, all team members should be informed of and discuss the following items as they may help a student’s dream of a high school diploma become a reality:

  1. Status of the CAHSEE requirement;
  2. Course Requirements and Options;
  3. The Lanterman Act; and
  4. High School Diploma Equivalency Options.

1. The CAHSEE:
Generally, students enrolled in public schools must pass the California High School Exit Exam to receive a diploma. California Education Code (Ed. Code or E.C.) § 60851(a). (Students in private schools do not take the CAHSEE). Students first take the CAHSEE in grade 10 and may take it during each subsequent testing period until each section has been passed. E.C. § 60851(b). Students learn their scores within eight weeks so that the student has time to retake a section that was not passed. E.C. § 60851(e).

If a student does not pass the CAHSEE, supplemental instruction must be provided by the district to help the student pass the exam. E.C. § 60851(f). Under the “Valenzuela Settlement” (AB-347, effective 10/12/2007), students who have not passed one or both parts of the CAHSEE by the end of grade 12 must be provided with intensive instruction and services to help them pass the CAHSEE for up to two additional consecutive years post grade 12 or until the CAHSEE is passed, whichever comes earlier.

Modifications and Accommodations? Students with IEPs or Section 504 plans may take the CAHSEE with accommodations or modifications as set forth in the IEP or Section 504 plan. For students with IEPs or Section 504 plans who are not able to pass the CAHSEE, below are some exceptions to the CAHSEE requirement that may benefit the student:

A. The CAHSEE Exemption: As a result of low CAHSEE passage rates among students with disabilities (approximately 50-40% were not passing the CAHSEE) and Chapman v. CDE, 229 F. Supp. 2d 981 (U.S.D.Ct., N.D. Ca. 2002), state law was changed in 2009 to allow students with an IEP or Section 504 program to receive a diploma without having to pass the CAHSEE for a period of time. (See Legislative Analysis Office for the State of California for more details on passage rates). Per section 60852.3 of the Ed. Code, students with disabilities are exempt from passing the CAHSEE until the State Board of Education (SBE) makes a determination that an alternative means exists for students with disabilities to demonstrate the skills needed for the CAHSEE or until the board determines that an alternative means is not feasible.

As of March 6, 2014, the position of the California Department of Education is that “alternative means” are not implementable at this time “given the lack of state resources, the move to Common Core State Standards, and the conversations regarding continued use of the CAHSEE in its current form.” CAHSEE: Students with Disabilities, CDE Website (3/6/14). The current exemption is effective until July 1, 2015 although the SBE may extend the exemption if the testing issue is not resolved. E.C. § 60852.2(b). Students with IEPs or a Section 504 plan must still take the CAHSEE in 10th grade (E.C. §60852.3(e)) and “at least twice after 10th grade” to qualify for the exemption. E.C. § 60852.2(a)(4).

What does this mean? For students graduating by July 1, 2015 (unless the exemption is extended), who have an IEP or Section 504 Plan, they have to take but do not have to pass the CAHSEE to earn a high school diploma if they have otherwise met all other state and local requirements for a high school diploma (e.g. passage of their classes).

B. CAHSEE Waiver Options (different from Exemption): Under the Education Code, in certain instances, students may request a waiver of the CAHSEE requirement:

(i) Local Waiver: If the student with an IEP or Section 504 plan received the equivalent of a passing score on the CAHSEE while using modifications, the parents may request that the school principal submit a request for a waiver of the CAHSEE requirement to the school board. The school board may then waive the CAHSEE requirement if the student has completed high school level coursework sufficient to attain the skills and knowledge otherwise needed to pass the CAHSEE, and earned the equivalent of a passing score on the CAHSEE with modifications that fundamentally altered what the CAHSEE measures.

(ii) Streamlined State Waiver: In 2012, the School Board of Education approved a waiver process for districts for students in 10th grade who had scores of 300 in ELA or Algebra 1 on the CST test (California Star Test), or 350 in the same subjects on the CMA (California Modified Assessment). (The SBE rejected lower scores recommended by the Advisory Commission on Special Education). This waiver is effective for 2 years unless the SBE reviews and renews the policy.

The District must apply to the state for the waiver and attach: copies of each student’s IEPs, provide documentation that each student has attempted to pass both portions of the CAHSEE with accommodations and/or modifications but has been unable to do so, documentation that each student has otherwise passed all other state and local requirements, and documentation that each student has attained at least a score of 300 (basic) on the STAR test, or 350 (proficient) score on the CMA in ELA grade 10 or Algebra 1.

Note: Proponents of the CAHSEE have argued that requiring students to pass this test will raise the expectations and skills of all students. However, findings from a study from the Center for Education Policy Analysis at Stanford University found that the CAHSEE requirement had “no positive effects” on students’ academic skills. “Effects of the California High School Exit Exam on Student Persistence, Achievement, and Graduation,” S. Reardon, M. Kurlaender, Policy Analysis for California Education (2009).

2. Diploma Requirements Generally:
The California Education Code sets forth the minimum requirements needed for a high school diploma in California’s public schools:

  • 3 years of English,
  • 2 years of Math (including Algebra 1),
  • 3 years of History/Social Studies (1 year of US history/geography and world history, 1 semester of American government and civics, and 1 semester of economics),
  • 2 years of science (including biological and physical sciences),
  • 1 year of either visual or performing arts, foreign language or career technical education, and
  • 2 years of PE (unless exempted).

E.C. § 51225.3. The Ed. Code authorizes local school boards to require additional courses, such as electives, as long as the above minimums are met. Some districts have adopted requirements that exceed the state’s requirements known as “A-G” classes or sequences. Carlsbad Unified and San Diego Unified are examples of local districts that have done this and in these districts, students may have to pass additional courses to get a diploma such as geometry, Algebra II, two years of a language other than English, and at least two lab sciences in biology, chemistry or physics. In additional to core academic courses, districts must also provide a course of study that provides students with an opportunity to attain entry-level employment skills in business or industry upon graduation from high school. E.C. § 51228(b).

A. Course Options: In addition to the above course requirements, a district’s governing board must also adopt alternative means to complete the required course of study that may include practical demonstrations of the skills and competencies, supervised work experience, career technical education courses, independent study and credit earned at postsecondary educational institutions. E.C. § 51225.3(b). For some students, classes taught in large classrooms with large student/teacher ratios may not provide the setting accommodation, assistive technology, instructional model, pacing or curriculum the student needs to pass a required class so the use of “alternative means” to earn the credits is necessary. Below are some options or “alternative means” IEP team members should explore when discussing supports to help a student earn a diploma.

(i) Gen Ed Classes as Pass/Fail: Classes can often be taken on a pass/fail basis to earn credit towards a high school diploma. This option gives teachers a little more flexibility to use modifications so that the student can still access the standards and curriculum to earn diploma credits.

Note: The University of California will not accept pass/fail classes for purposes of college admission but taking classes on a pass/fail basis may help a struggling student earn credit towards a high school diploma.

(ii) “Fundamental Classes”: Some districts offer special education classes that earn credits towards a diploma. These classes are provided for students with learning disabilities and should be designed to integrate best practices for instructing students with mild/moderate learning disabilities using a research based curriculum.

At this time, none of the local school districts offer fundamental classes in all subjects required for a high school diploma but team members should discuss the availability of fundamental classes options in all schools throughout the district as well as other local districts (if needed). For example, San Dieguito Union School District offers fundamental classes in English and History but not in any math or science.

Note: Fundamental classes are not “A-G” certified so the credits for these classes only count towards a high school diploma, not towards college eligibility.

(iii) High School Independent Study On-line Programs (“ISOL”): Many high schools offer their own ISOL program. Students wishing to meet certain high school credits though on-line learning usually have to sign a high school independent study online course “contract” to sign up for online study. For students with IEPs/Section 504 plans, the educational plan must specifically state that the student can and will be enrolling in independent study. The District then provides all the instructional materials and other items needed for the assignments. Exams in the subject area are usually taken and proctored on the school’s campus. See, e.g. San Dieguito Union High School District’s ISOL Policy.

(iv) Non-District On-Line courses: Districts also accept on-line high school classes from BYU or another reputable university or entity which enable the student to learn the material in a smaller home setting. Most courses satisfy the basic high school requirements for admission to most colleges. See, “About Program”, BYU Independent Study Standard Program. BYU Independent Study, for example, offers an extensive independent study high school program that is leveled for standard courses as well as “advanced” courses. BYU also offers an adult diploma program as well for students who are 19 years of age or older. One of the benefits of taking an on-line course through an organization such as BYU is that students are allowed six months to complete a course.

Courses that may be of interest include core academic courses such as English, pre-Algebra, Algebra 1 (part 1 and 2), geometry, as well as keyboarding, life skills, clothing construction, engine repair, commercial art, and more. Again, make sure that the IEP team states in writing that it will accept passage of one of these classes for credit towards a diploma before enrolling the student. Also, explore with the team how many of these types of online courses can be accepted for credit. Courses cost approximately $132 for the semester (excluding any books) and an application fee. If the IEP team decides this is the appropriate option for a student, the course should be listed in the IEP for the district to pay for it.

Note: As of the date of this article, students seeking eligibility for NCAA/NAIA, NJCAA, etc., cannot enroll in BYU Independent Study Courses for core credit.

(v) Mira Costa College: Mira Costa College offers high school courses for high school students who are: aged 17 or older, credit or CAHSEE deficient, and who have attended at least five semesters of high school. Courses are provided at its Community Learning Center located at 1831 Mission Avenue, Oceanside, CA, 92058. Courses offered in this program are tuition free although there are some costs for the rental or purchase of books.

Day high school students must present a “concurrent enrollment permit” signed by their high school’s principal, counselor and parent. Students under the age of 18 must have a “minor’s permit” signed by a parent or guardian. Permits are available from high school counseling offices and online through Mira Costa College. For additional questions visit the college online.

(vi) In-School Services: On occasion, if a student cannot learn in the larger gen ed environment because of an attention related or other issue, the student may need a “setting accommodation” (not the same as placement) that provides small group or 1:1 instruction. In such a case, the district may bring in an existing credential teacher, one of their home educators (who teach homebound students), or hire credentialed teachers from outside agencies (e.g. The Banyan Tree) to provide instruction on the school site.

(vii) Private School Instruction: Many private or tutoring programs can deliver instruction using a different instructional delivery model, classroom size or curriculum that may best suit the child’s learning needs. Discuss with the IEP team whether the instruction and credits provided by these outside sources are transferrable to the student’s school. Examples of places where instructional settings my provide more support include: Cal Coast Academy, High Bluff Academy, Fusion Learning Center, The Banyan Tree, The Encinitas Learning Center (up to 8th grade).

(viii) Summer School: Make sure to discuss summer options with the IEP or Section 504 teams to determine what programs or options are available to help a student earn or recover credits. If the district is not offering summer school, discuss whether the student can attend a summer program offered by a different district or a local charter school (e.g. Audeo Charter School, Bayshore Prep Charter School, Cal Coast Academy, Escondido Charter High School, High Tech High, etc.). Charter schools are tuition free and receive public funding so they are subject to the protections and requirements of the IDEA and Rehab Act.

Important to remember is that summer may be a good time for a student to take a class that he or she might otherwise struggle with during the regular school year because there are so many options available during the summer. Whether the student takes a summer class at a private school or public school, as long as the school is WASC accredited, the credits should be able to transfer over to the student's primary school. Normally, up to 30 credits may be transferred over. So, if math classes are more difficult, consider having the student take a class over the summer that offers more support and a smaller setting to help that student pass the class or obtain a better grade. Check with the district to see how repeat class grades are computed. Some schools remove the bad grade from the GPA but others may keep it. In most instances all classes will show on the transcript even if the grade is not counted in the GPA.

B. Algebra 1 Requirement:

The California Department of Education’s position is that Algebra 1 is required to equip students with the “practical skills they will need to be successful in the 21st century” and so students are now required to pass Algebra 1 to graduate. Algebra I Graduation Requirement, CDE; E.C. § 51224.5(a). But, as noted in the information provided by the California Department of Education website, students with disabilities may “not be able to complete the course in the standard length of time and may require more than one class to complete the course of study.” Fortunately, as noted previously, the Ed. Code specifically provides for “alternative means for pupils to complete the prescribed course of study”. E.C. § 51225.3. The Ed. Code also states that students may meet the Algebra 1 requirement through a “combination” of courses (e.g. a two-year Algebra 1 and 2) based on all Algebra 1 content standards. E.C. § 51224.5(b). If the student needs a two year or combination of courses to meet the Algebra 1 requirement, discuss with the IEP team what options, other than a traditional Algebra 1 class, are available at the student’s school or other location.

Can this requirement be waived? Districts may apply to have the Algebra 1 requirement waived through a “Section 56101 waiver”. The “Special Education Waiver Authority” site offered by the California Department of Education states:

(a) Any district, special education local plan area, county office, or public education agency, as defined in Section 56500, may request the board to grant a waiver of any provision of this code or regulations adopted pursuant to that provision if the waiver is necessary or beneficial to the content and implementation of the pupil's individualized education program and does not abrogate any right provided individuals with exceptional needs and their parents or guardians under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1400 et seq.), or to the compliance of a district, special education local plan area, or county office with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1400 et seq.), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. Sec. 794), and federal regulations relating thereto.
(b) The board may grant, in whole or in part, any request pursuant to subdivision (a) when the facts indicate that failure to do so would hinder implementation of the pupil's individualized education program or compliance by a district, special education local plan area, or county office with federal mandates for a free, appropriate education for children or youth with disabilities.

The San Dieguito Union High School District, for example, was given a waiver for the school year of 2011-12 (waiver 150-2-2012).

What if student took Algebra in middle school? If a student passes Algebra I prior to grade nine, this class will count towards the Algebra I requirement. However, the student will still have to take two additional math courses in grades nine through 12. E.C. § 51224.3(a)(1)(b).

C. Nonpublic or Private Schools:

(i) Non-Public High Schools: There are many nonpublic high schools in Southern California that provide smaller instructional settings and specialized curriculum that may enable a student to graduate with a high school diploma. Non-public schools are “private” schools that qualify to receive public funding so that students can be “placed” there by a district. Examples of non-public high schools are Balboa City School (San Diego), Mt. Helix Academy (La Mesa), the Winston School (Del Mar), and the Sierra Academy (San Diego). If a district places at student in a non-public school, the student may still be required to take the CAHSEE but the courses may be better suited for instruction.

(ii) Private High Schools: Students in private high schools or programs do not take the CAHSEE to earn a diploma so in order for student to earn a high school diploma, enrollment in a private school may be a preferred option.

3. Post High School: In the event a student is not able to earn sufficient credits during the typical four year high school period, the below items should be discussed and, where applicable, included in the student’s transition plan in the IEP if the student wishes to continue working towards a high school diploma.

A. The Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act: Persons with qualifying disabilities have a right to receive services and supports under this Act, including educational services, to help them achieve the “most independent, productive, and normal lives possible”. Welfare and Institutions Code (WIC) § 4502(a). Under the combined laws and regulations of the IDEA, California Education Code and the Lanterman Act, persons who qualify for special educational services may obtain additional educational and other services up to age 22 (or through age 22 under certain circumstances). 34 C.F.R. 300.106, E.C. § 56026. So, if a student does not earn a diploma within the 4 years of high school, under the Lanterman Act educational can still be provided up to age 22 to help a student earn a diploma. Educational services are provided by the student's district until the student earns a regular high school diploma or "ages out". Once the student turns 22, the local regional center will provide services if the student is a regional center client.

Important Note: An individual with exceptional needs who graduates from high school with a regular high school diploma is no longer eligible for special education and related adult transition services through the school district. E.C. § 56026.1(a). They will need to work with the Department of Rehabilitation and Regional Center to determine what, if any, supports are available. For students who need more help with job training and independent living skills, it may make more sense to earn a diploma after the traditional four year high school period to ensure that the student has longer access to adult transitional services.

Lanterman Info: http://www.disabilityrightsca.org/pubs/506301.pdf
Lanterman Act (indexed): http://www.dds.ca.gov/Statutes/LantermanAct.cfm

B. District Adult Education Programs: Districts usually have their own adult education programs to help students earn or recover credits to earn their diploma. When discussing post-secondary educational options, make sure to discuss with the team whether the district’s “adult ed” program is designed to teach students with special needs and discuss other options if it is not. If the adult education program does not provide special education services, discuss with the team the provisions of the IDEIA as well as the American with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act which prevent discrimination of a person with a disability and which may require that the district provide benefits to the student with a disability that is equal to or better than the education program provided to nondisabled students.

C. Adult High School Diploma Courses at Mira Costa College: Mira Costa College offers core academic courses to help students earn credits towards their diploma. These courses are held at the Community Learning Center in Oceanside for students aged 18 or older. A student who is 17 may still attend under certain circumstances. See the Mira Costa College website for more details.

4. Other Options:

A. California High School Proficiency Examination: The CHSPE is a voluntary test students may take to earn a “Certificate of Proficiency” by the California State Board of Education and is considered the legal equivalent to a high school diploma by the State of California. Students who pass this exam, may leave high school early with verified parent approval. The cost of this testing is just over $100.

If the student intends to pursue educational studies in a college or university, a certificate of proficiency may not be accepted so the student should be sure to find out the admission requirements of an educational institution before selecting this option. At the time of this article, a CHSPE meets the requirements of California state universities that an applicant have a high school diploma or equivalent but additional course credits may be needed. (Test may be taken an unlimited number of times).

B. General Educational Development Test (GED): To take a GED, applicants generally must be 18 years old or older or within 60 days of the 18th birthday. For age and time requirements, visit the GED webpage. Testing costs approximately $150. Passage of the GED results in the issuance of a “high school equivalency certificate” and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as legally equivalent to a high school diploma. Accommodations are available for persons with a specific learning disability.

Bottom line? Many students have until age 22 to earn their diploma, but not all, so be sure to know the options and supports to help the student become as successful as possible!

Resources:
California’s Disability Rights Organization
Consumer’s Guide to The Lanterman Act (DDS Publication)
Lanterman Regional Center
Lanterman Act Publication