Special education graduation rules could increase dropouts

School officials are concerned that new graduation requirements for special education students could lead to more students dropping out before finishing high school.

Kelly Wight, director of special programs in the Tupper Lake Central School District, told the school board Monday night that soon, the state plans to phase out diplomas that special education students are currently able to get, called Individualized Education Program diplomas, or IEPs.

Now, students with disabilities have the option of graduating with an IEP diploma if the district’s Committee on Special Education decides that it would be very difficult or impossible for a student to graduate with a regular diploma. They instead create a plan for students with specific goals outlined that need to be met in order for them to graduate.

But because No Child Left Behind, the federal education act, dictates that all children should graduate high school with a standard diploma, the state has been working to get rid of the IEP diploma in order to keep getting federal funds.

This year, the state Board of Regents voted to eliminate the IEP diploma entirely. Next year’s senior class will have the last students who can graduate with an IEP diploma, Wight told the school board.

“I think that this is the one of the biggest changes in special education since – in the last 20-plus years, really – since the laws for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were passed,” Wight said.

Students must have 22 credits and pass Regents exams in math, science, English and two social studies to graduate with a Regents diploma.

There was also an option for a local diploma, which was given to students who could pass a Regents Competency Test but not all the other Regents exams. That option was ended with students going into grade nine in 2011, Wight said. Juniors and seniors next year will be the last ones who can get local diplomas.

In the future, the only other option for students will be to earn a “skills and achievement credential.” Wight said that option will be limited to students with the highest level of special needs.

“These are students typically who don’t have language skills, don’t have the ability to write and to do all the things to take a test,” Wight said. “So a very, very small window of the population that would qualify for that,” only about 1 percent of students, Wight said.

So almost every student, regardless of special needs, will need to meet those Regents diploma requirements to finish high school.

“It really means that in a very short period of time, essentially every student has to achieve every single standard and has to be prepared for the same outcomes as their non-disabled peers,” Wight said.

To achieve that, Wight said the Tupper Lake district will need to move its special education resources more into the general education classrooms. That’s something the district has been working toward in recent years.

School board members asked if the change would have an effect on the special education budget, but Wight said that since she’s been working in that direction with staffing changes in the last few years, she doesn’t think it will have a significant impact.

School board member Paul Ellis speculated that the change may keep students in high school for more years, costing the district more to accommodate students with special needs. Wight said that’s possible, but she doesn’t see it as likely.

“There are so few students who even see a fifth year of high school as something they’re willing to commit to,” Wight said.

Instead, it could lead to students dropping out before finishing high school.

“Before this affects budget, it’s going to affect graduation rate,” said district Superintendent Seth McGowan.

“That is my biggest fear, because we don’t want students to see this as a hurdle they can’t get over,” Wight said.

Out of the 65 students who graduated this year, 15 had special needs. Four of them graduated with IEP diplomas, eight with local diplomas and three with Regents diplomas.

“It would significantly impact that group of kids,” Wight said.

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Jimmy Kilpatrick, a national recognized professional special education advocate since 1994.

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