There’s a new high school diploma for Indiana students with significant cognitive disabilities

BY ELIZABETH GABRIEL

Students with significant cognitive disabilities will be able to earn a new type of diploma this year, designed to give them more opportunities after graduation. The Indiana State Board of Education unanimously approved the alternative diploma earlier this month.

Currently, high school students can earn a certificate of completion or a certificate of attendance if they are unable to meet the requirements for graduation. However, advocates for students with disabilities say those without degrees are unsuitable for many entry-level jobs, such as fast food and janitor positions.

“Even the jobs that we think of as more entry-level jobs — which we know are held by high school students — if you’re over high school age and don’t have a degree, you won’t be considered for those jobs because that Computer system you apply to is weeding you out,” said Karly Sciortino-Poulter, director of The Arc of Indiana’s statewide advocacy programs.

States across the country have had to restructure their diploma offerings through the Every Student Succeeds Act, a federal law passed in 2015. Three years later, the Indiana legislature passed legislation allowing the State Board of Education to create this alternative diploma.

About 76 percent of Hoosiers receiving special education graduated from high school in 2022, up nearly 2 percentage points from the year before. But across the state, students who received special education still had the lowest graduation rates compared to other student groups.

The state’s graduation rate last year was 86.6 percent for students who earned General, Core 40, Academic Honors, and Technical Honors degrees.

Proponents of supporting students with different abilities believe that the introduction of the alternative degree diploma will make degree acquisition more accessible to all students and better support them in their future endeavors.

“Not only does this diploma give Hoosier students the opportunity to earn a high school diploma, but they can indicate that they have a high school diploma on future applications,” said Hannah Carlock, senior director of public affairs at The ARC of Indiana. “That could lead to better-paying jobs, a career ladder, and a brighter future.”

The alternative diploma is only for students with severe cognitive impairments. These may be students who have one or more types of disabilities under the Federal Education Act for Persons with Disabilities, such as: B. autism or traumatic brain injury.

A student case conference committee will determine if the alternate diploma is appropriate for the student.

An eligible student can earn the diploma through a combination of 40 high school credits and classes in which a student completes a unit, Sciortino-Poulter said. A unit is when a student with cognitive disabilities is in the same class as their peers and is exposed to higher educational concepts, but the tasks they complete are at a more accessible level. For a Core 40 diploma, students must earn 40 credits.

Alternative Diploma students are required to earn credits or units in English, Social Studies, Mathematics, Science, Employability and other subjects. Students are also required to complete a portfolio showing work experience, certificates earned, or job references completed during high school.

“This is important to ensure that people with disabilities have as many opportunities as possible without being constrained by any academic challenges they may have had,” Sciortino-Poulter said.

The new diploma rule, passed by the Indiana State Board of Education, must be reviewed and signed by the Attorney General and the Governor before it officially goes into effect. Once signed, students will be able to earn the alternative diploma starting this spring.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at [email protected].

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