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

Indiana's graduation rate was 86.6 percent in 2022. Students receiving special education services graduated at a rate of 76 percent.
Indiana's graduation rate was 86.6 percent in 2022. Students receiving special education services graduated at a rate of 76 percent.

Students with significant cognitive disabilities can earn a new type of diploma this year intended to provide them with more opportunities after graduation. The Indiana State Board of Education unanimously approved the alternative diploma earlier this month.

Currently, high schoolers can earn acertificate of completionor a certificate of attendance if they are unable to meet the requirements for graduation. But advocates for students with disabilities say not obtaining a diploma makes people ineligible for many entry level jobs, such as fast food and janitorial positions.

“Even those jobs that we tend to think of as more entry level — that we know high school students are doing — if you're over high school age and you don't have a diploma, you're not considered for those jobs because the computer system that you apply on weeds you out,” said Karly Sciortino-Poulter, director ofThe Arc of Indiana's statewide advocacy programs.

States across the country were required torestructure their diploma offeringsthroughthe Every Student Succeeds Act, federal legislation passed in 2015. Three years later Indiana lawmakerspassed a lawto allow the State Board of Education to create this alternative diploma.

Roughly 76 percent of Hoosiers receiving special education servicesgraduated high school in 2022, which is almost 2 percentage points more than the prior year. But across the state, students receiving special education services still had the lowest graduation rate compared to other student groups.

The state’s graduation rate was86.6 percentlast year for students who earned a General, Core 40, Academic Honors and Technical Honors diploma.

Advocates in support of students with different abilities believe the implementation ofthe alternate graduation diplomawill make earning a degree more accessible to all students and better support them in their future endeavors.

“This diploma not only gives Hoosier students the opportunity to earn a high school diploma, but they will be able to mark that they have a high school diploma on future job applications,” said Hannah Carlock, senior director of public affairs with The ARC of Indiana. “That could lead to better paying jobs, a career ladder and a brighter future.”

The alternate diploma is only for students with severe cognitive disabilities. These can be students who have one or more type of disability under the federalIndividuals with Disabilities Education Act, such asautism or a traumatic brain injury.

A student's case conference committee determines whether the alternate diploma is appropriate for the student.

An eligible studentcan earn thediploma through acombination of completing 40 high school credits and classes where 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 exposed to higher level education concepts, but the assignments they’re completing are on a more accessible level. A Core 40 diploma requires students earn 40 credits.

Students on the alternate diploma track 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 that shows their work experience, credentials earned, or work certificates completed during high school.

“This is important to make sure that people with disabilities are able to have as many opportunities as possible without being restricted by academic challenges that 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 both the Attorney General and the Governor before it’s officially in effect. Once signed, students will be eligible to earn the alternate diploma beginning this spring.

Contact WFYI education reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org.

Copyright 2023 WFYI Public Media. To see more, visit WFYI Public Media.

Elizabeth Gabriel is KLCC Public Radio Foundation Reporting Fellow. She does stories on diversity, equity and inclusion.