New Report on Students with Disabilities

Wednesday, November 13, 2013Printer-friendly version

New Report: Students with Disabilities Can and Should Get a College- and Career-Ready Diploma

Graduation policies for these students differ from state to state resulting in altered expectations.

Washington, D.C. - November 13, 2013 - Now that all states have moved to college- and career-ready (CCR) standards, do their graduation requirements ensure that students with disabilities (SWD) are prepared for postsecondary education or the workforce? Achieve and the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) today released a report to guide state policies with the goal of ensuring all students have access to a diploma that means something - that they are academically prepared.

"The foundation of any state-level policy on college and career readiness must begin with the premise of embracing high expectations for all students, including students with disabilities," said Mike Cohen, Achieve's president. "For this to happen, states need to be honest and transparent about their diploma requirements."

Policies vary greatly across the country. Some states hold all students to the same standards to graduate, but allow students to demonstrate their mastery of standards in different ways. Some states, despite the potential for most students with disabilities to achieve, lower the standards or lessen the coursework to receive a diploma resulting in a credential that does not signify they are ready for life after high school. Still other states award all students the same diploma, but there are multiple pathways leading to one diploma which may vary greatly in rigor.

While acknowledging that the students with disabilities population is diverse, the report indicated that 85-90 percent of this group can meet the graduation standards targeted for all students with appropriate supports and accommodations. Only 10-15 percent of students with disabilities have disabilities that require they meet different achievement standards.

"The vast majority of students with disabilities can be held to the same graduation standards and requirements necessary to receive a standard high school diploma as other students so long as they receive specially designed instruction, and appropriate access, support and accommodations as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," said Martha L. Thurlow, Director of NCEO.

The report also indicates that the correlation between numerous diploma options and the lower rate at which students with disabilities earn a standard diploma results in fewer high school graduates and limits many students' ability to pursue educational and employment opportunities. "Many states currently offer alternative types of diplomas such as IEP or special education diplomas, skills certificates, modified diplomas and others for students with disabilities," said David R. Johnson, Director, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota. "While the intent of granting an alternative diploma is to provide students with access to future educational and work opportunities, research suggests that these diplomas may actually limit students in achieving these goals due to a lack of understanding and acceptance of alternative diplomas by postsecondary programs and employers."

To make sure students with disabilities and their families can make informed decisions about their futures, the report includes five recommendations for states:

  • set high college and career expectations and clear goals for students with disabilities;
  • limit the number of diploma options available for students with disabilities;
  • identify multiple, equally rigorous paths to earning a standard diploma for students with disabilities;
  • identify appropriate graduation requirements and diploma options for students with significant cognitive disabilities; and,
  • research the impact of state graduation requirements and diploma options on student outcomes. 

To see a copy of the report, go to

MEDIA CONTACT: Chad Colby (202) 419-1570, Marie O' Hara (202) 419-1562,