A graduation conundrum for students with disabilities

Jay Mathews
Columnist July 2

Rarely has the education field produced a set of initials as necessary but as troublesome as these: IEP. They stand for individualized education program, the plan that governs how each child with a disability should be taught and what he or she should learn.

Created by federal law, the IEP is sensible and democratic. Each student with a disability who qualifies for an IEP has an IEP team made up of teachers, administrators and his or her parents. The tricky part is that these adults must agree to what is best for the child. Sometimes the parents don’t think the educators are doing what is needed and vice versa.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

These differences have become more worrisome because Louisiana — a hotbed of American education reform — seems about to give its IEP teams the power to decide what students with disabilities need to graduate from high school. My former Post colleague Christina A. Samuels now covers special education for Education Week and has written an eye-opening account of the battle being waged over this move.

Supporters of the Louisiana measure, unanimously approved by both houses of the state legislature, say “it could improve the state’s dismal record of graduating students with disabilities in four years with a standard diploma,” Samuels reported. “In 2011-12, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the four-year graduation rate for those students was 33 percent, compared to 72 percent for the general student population.”

I found similar differences in Maryland and Virginia. In 2013 the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities in Maryland was 60 percent, compared with 85 percent for all students. In Virginia that year, the four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities was 52 percent, compared with 85 percent for all students.

The education officials and legislators in Louisiana believe that giving IEP teams the power over graduation requirements will narrow those gaps and give students with disabilities a better chance to find employment. But many advocates for children with disabilities — in Louisiana and nationally — say this would unnecessarily and harmfully lower standards for students with disabilities. The Louisiana state school superintendent endorsed the bill only after its sponsors agreed that the IEP teams could decide graduation requirements only if the student failed the annual state exams that are required for graduation.

Virginia and Maryland also require state exams for graduation. (The District’s schools, like those in 25 states, do not.) In 2012 the Virginia legislature eliminated the Modified Standard Diploma that had been given to students with disabilities who could not meet the standard diploma requirements. They must now earn the full 22 credits required for a Standard Diploma, including six credits verified by passing a state test.

In a move similar to what the Louisiana legislature has endorsed, IEP teams in Virginia were given the power to grant credit accommodations to students with disabilities who failed a required state test at least twice. Possible accommodations include setting a lower passing score on state tests and giving credit for work-based learning experiences or alternative courses not on the state lists.

The Minnesota-based National Center on Educational Outcomes has identified 23 states that allow alternate courses to be used to earn required credits. Center officials say they have no research on what influence IEP teams in each state have on graduation decisions.

The argument over how tough to be with students with disabilities at graduation time is difficult to resolve. Some education officials argue that students with disabilities often have skills that employers need, but lose job opportunities if they don’t have a diploma. Others say lower standards will lessen the chance that those students can get a good education.

For decades, American schools shoved low-income students into poorly constructed vocational programs that deprived them of the reading, writing and math skills they needed. I fear lower graduation standards for students with disabilities would do the same. Teachers are just beginning to grapple with the consequences.

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