In Indiana, Worries New Diploma Requirements Will Leave Special Ed Learners Behind

Nov 30, 2015

Credit Dave Herholz /

Like most high school freshmen, Nash Huffman goes back and forth on what he wants to be when he grows up.

A job at the hospital in his hometown of Noblesville interests him, but today, he really has a knack for reporting, using my microphone to interview his parents:

“So Mommy, tell me about your fears!” he asks his mother, Jan.

Nash has Down’s syndrome, and therefore an individualized education plan since he’s entered school. This has meant splitting his time between a general education classroom and working individually with a special education teacher. It also meant his coursework could look different from other students’, but according to Jan, now that he’s a freshman things are more difficult.

“Once we get to high school you can’t modify the work,” she explains. “You can accommodate the work, which is very different.”

That difficulty is manifesting in his math and science classes, where he’s struggling the most.

“Earth space science is driving me crazy,” Nash says. “Because it’s real…I don’t know, it’s kind of complicated, I think.”

In Indiana, Nash must meet the same state standards as other students, and more importantly, must meet the same graduation requirements if he wants a diploma. He’s currently working toward earning the General Diploma, which requires two math credits…including Algebra 1. Nash’s dad, Jeff, says his son isn’t ready to take that class so he’s in another, remedial math class to help prepare him for Algebra.

“He’s got a math test tomorrow, pre-algebra and he’s working hard on it, but he doesn’t get any credit for it,” Jeff says.

He doesn’t get credit because it’s not an approved math course to graduate, and the Huffman’s hope Nash can complete the two math credits he needs over four years.

The state is rewriting graduation requirements, making the path to getting a diploma more rigorous. These changes include more math credits, different elective requirements and a push to get kids considering jobs or academic interests they’re drawn to. The diplomas will apply to all students, but as the bar is raised, students such as Nash could get left behind. If Nash were trying to get a diploma in a few years, when new diploma requirements go into effect, that could require three to four years of math, Jeff knows it would likely prevent his son from graduating.

“For a lot of folks with developmental and intellectual disabilities, that math comes, but it comes at a much slower pace,” he explains. “And to say you have to take math at this accelerated pace, you fail one class, all of a sudden you’re not going to get a diploma or you’re going to have to double up.”

The Huffmans are advocating for the needs of special education students like Nash as the state considers new graduation requirements. Besides requiring more math, the proposals include increased credits overall, and focused electives that help a child find a career path or higher education interest…all things they say could be tough for special education students.

But Jason Bearce, an associate commissioner for higher education who helped write the new grad requirements, says they did consult special education experts about how this population of students could meet new requirements.

“So some of the experts that we talked to think that the vast majority of the special education population could earn these diplomas the same as they could today,” says Bearce.

One part of the new diploma Bearce says will be especially beneficial for these students is the requirement to get workforce experience or technical training. 

“We would argue that the extent possible, if we can equip students whether they’re special education or not, if we can equip them with some very practical employability skills but also give them an opportunity to experience a workplace that they may be well suited for early on, that might increase the likelihood that they’re going to be able to find meaningful employment in an industry.”

Not every state makes its special education students follow the same graduation guidelines as general ed students. In another state, Nash’s remedial math classes would count toward a math credit rather than just preparing him for one that actually counts. Options like this, which give these students more opportunities is what parents like the Huffman’s want.

“We’ve never sat here and said that Nash is absolutely positively some kind of wonder kid with Down Syndrome, that he’s going to be able to earn that high school diploma,” says Jeff. “But what we’ve always fought for is for him to have the opportunity to try.”

The new graduation requirements are under further review, and will likely be released in April. Whatever changes are approved go into effect in the 2018-2019 school year.