Special education advocates want all students to be ready for life after high school — even those who don’t get diplomas

Indiana’s certificate of completion has for years meant basically one thing: A student showed up for school.

But the state’s special education officials say it’s due for major changes. They are redesigning the certificate to make it more meaningful — both to students and to their future employers.

Certificates of completion are intended for students with cognitive disabilities that make them unable to earn a traditional high school diploma. The non-academic credential is loosely defined in state law and says a student has attended school and completed the goals in his or her Individualized Education Program. The state does not consider a student who receives a certificate a graduate.

That will be different with the new certificate, which would include specific academic requirements, such as a minimum of four math credits and a final project to prepare students for the workforce, such as an internship. Parents and school officials would still have to weigh in before a student could switch from a diploma track to a certificate of completion.

“We realized that the certificate of completion really didn’t give teachers, parents or students any guidelines for what they would be working on in schools,” said Pam Wright, director of special education for the Indiana Department of Education. “We want to have some guidelines around that framework so kids continue to be held to high expectations.”

The proposal will be presented to the Indiana State Board of Education on Wednesday, but it does not require approval, Wright said. Students would begin to use the new certificate starting with the class of 2022.

The state has decided to bolster the certificate for a few reasons: Community members and parents were worried students with a certificate might not be prepared or able to get jobs. More urgently, state officials also noticed that last year, the number of students who received one increased “significantly.”

Overall, few Indiana students earn a certificate of completion. In 2015, 11 percent of students with disabilities earned a certificate, which grew to 16 percent in 2016 — about 1.3 percent of all Indiana students.

That jump was troubling to educators on the state’s Special Education Advisory Council because certificates of completion are supposed to be a last resort, not a fix for students who could graduate with more help.

Of the students earning certificates of completion, 27.5 percent have mild cognitive disabilities, 19.5 percent have Autism spectrum disorders and 18.5 have moderate cognitive disabilities, making up the three largest categories of students.

Wright said she was “most concerned about the group of kids with mild cognitive disabilities. I really believe that if we had started early with high expectations for kids … a lot of those kids would now be able to earn a diploma.”

The new guidelines for the certificate of completion are also important because they could be used as a template for an “alternate” diploma, which federal law says must be based on state academic standards and only applies to students “with the most significant cognitive disabilities.” Indiana doesn’t currently award an alternate diploma, but the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind in 2015, would allow for up to 1 percent of students across the state to earn it.

Some special education advocates have expressed concerns that an alternate or “special education” diploma could incentivize schools to remove students with disabilities from the diploma track — even if they’re capable of earning one. It’s similar to concerns about certificates of completion, which also take kids out the running for a diploma.

“That’s what we hear all the time — once a child goes on that certificate of completion, it’s like, well, they can’t learn, so we’re not going to spend our time there,” said Kim Dodson, executive director of the Arc of Indiana, a group that advocates for people with disabilities. “Kids end up regressing.”

Dodson said the fact that Indiana’s general diploma will eventually no longer count toward federal graduation rates adds new things to consider in the conversation about alternate diplomas. The general diploma is a pared-down option typically earned by students who struggle academically or those with special needs.

“We support making the certificate more meaningful, but we still struggle with will kids get pushed there instead of the general diploma?” Dodson said. “That concern gets lessened now that the general diploma won’t count either, which raises a whole other set of issues … if (an alternate diploma) will count in the graduation rate and the general diploma won’t, then we need to re-evaluate our concerns.”