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Spring 2008 Vol. 15. No. 3 Focus on Reconnecting Youth

Eye on special education

Answers about graduation for students with disabilities

By by Janet Stotland on Mar 6, 2008 12:00 AM

Are students with disabilities entitled to graduate with a regular high school diploma?

Yes. Students with disabilities in Pennsylvania are entitled to graduate with a regular high school diploma if they complete the same graduation requirements as regular education students. In addition, if a student is unable to meet a district's graduation requirements due to a disability, and requires special education services or modifications to the general curriculum, the student can graduate and receive a regular diploma if the student's IEP team determines that the student has completed his or her special education program (IEP stands for Individualized Education Program).

Do students with disabilities have to participate in, and achieve designated scores on, a state standardized assessment test or a local assessment aligned to state standards in order to graduate?

Students with disabilities must take Pennsylvania's System of School Assessment (PSSA) or Pennsylvania's Alternate System of Assessment (PASA). Proposals for new graduation tests and requirements were recently okayed by the state board of education, but those are not expected to take effect until the high school graduating class of 2014.

Although a student's IEP team cannot exempt a student with a disability from participating in a statewide assessment (either the PSSA or PASA), the team must determine whether special accommodations in the administration of the test are necessary to permit the student to participate effectively. In general, students are expected to score at the proficient level or better in reading, writing, and mathematics in the PSSA, or in a districtwide assessment that is aligned with the state's academic standards, in order to graduate. However, regardless of whether they "pass" the regular or alternate assessment, students with disabilities are still eligible for regular education diplomas if their IEP teams conclude that they have satisfactorily completed their special education programs.

How long can students with disabilities remain in school?

Children with disabilities have the right to stay in school until they complete the school term in which they turn 21 years old or until they graduate-whichever comes first. If a student accepts a high school diploma prior to age 21, the student cannot continue to receive free education or special education services. However, the school must still provide the student with a summary of his or her academic achievement and functional performance, including recommendations on how to assist the student in meeting his or her postsecondary goals.

Are parents of a student with disabilities entitled to be notified that their child will graduate?

Yes. Graduation from high school is a change in placement for a special education student. School districts must provide written notice to the parents of their intent to graduate a student. If a parent does not agree with a district's decision to graduate the child before age 21, the parent can object and invoke protections under Pennsylvania's Special Education Procedural Safeguard System. (For more information, see the Education Law Center's fact sheet "The Special Education Procedural Safeguard System.")

Must a school reevaluate a special education student before recommending graduation?

A school does not have to reevaluate a student before recommending graduation. However, nothing prevents a parent from requesting a reevaluation to determine whether or not a student has met his or her IEP goals and is ready to graduate.

What does the law say about participation in graduation ceremonies?

State law requires that a student with a disability who has completed four years of high school, but who is not graduating and is continuing to receive special education and related services from the school district, must be permitted to participate in the graduation ceremony with classmates. The student is entitled to a certificate of completion as part of the graduation ceremony, but must receive a regular high school diploma when formal schooling ends.

School districts cannot discriminate against a student based on his or her disability, and so a school district must make reasonable accommodations to enable students with disabilities to participate fully and on equal terms in graduation ceremonies.

For more information, contact Education Law Center ( at 215-238-6970.

About the Author

Janet Stotland is ELC co-director

Comments (1)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on August 26, 2015 10:57 pm
My high school daughter has a IEP placed and struggling in school. She wanted to drop a course and pick of a easier one but was denied by the school counselor.

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