In 2018, South Dakota updated its graduation requirements for the first time in a decade. The new policies also came with a change in federal law that could mean thousands of special education students will no longer be able to earn a high school diploma. School districts had until this year to implement the new requirements.
In our KELOLAND News Investigation, “Diploma Dilemma,” we talk with parents and those in the special education field to find out how this could impact the lives of people with learning disabilities for years to come. Plus we attempt to get answers from the South Dakota Department of Education on why some students may be prohibited from ever being able to achieve a high school diploma.
It’s a right of passage for both students and their proud parents: crossing the stage to receive a high school diploma. But for many students in special education in South Dakota, a high school diploma may be out of reach.
“By not allowing kids who are in special education to necessarily to receive a diploma, we’re taking something away from them that they’ve been able to achieve for years,” Kent Alberty said.
Alberty’s term as Sioux Falls School Board President ended in 2019, but as the father of a child with special needs and previous owner of a staffing agency, he has been an outspoken critic of revisions made by the state to meet federal requirements.
“It doesn’t seem on the surface like a big deal. You get the certificate of completion as opposed to a high school diploma–maybe it doesn’t sound like a big thing–but it is,” Alberty said.
13-year-old Brayden Kouri, who has Down syndrome, made the O’Gorman junior high basketball team. While his school is able to make sure he is included in every way possible, by law, he may not qualify for a high school diploma when the time comes.
Angela Kennecke: Is it important to you that Brayden get a diploma?
Bryan Kouri: Yeah, it’s really important to me he gets a diploma. He’s put in the same amount of effort; perhaps really in all honesty more effort than a lot of these kids to achieve what he can achieve But is it unfair? Is it from a lack of understanding? Is it from a place of lacking compassion perhaps? Yeah, I think that for sure is true.
“We have students with significant needs and those students, just like every other student are supposed to be held to the same educational standards for growth and development. And the logical outcome for the work we do in schools is to achieve a diploma,” Michelle Powers said.
Michelle Powers is not only a special education professor at Augustana University, she is also the mother of a special needs daughter. 16-year-old Delaney has autism and is planning to graduate.
“I think for her, she wants it because she knows that’s what everybody else does and it’s part of a right of passage in some ways. She understands it’s not guaranteed for her to get a diploma; she has to work for it. But she’s as worthy of earning a diploma as anyone,” Powers said.
The main issue facing students with disabilities is whether they need an accommodation for a class required for graduation or a modification. While the terms may sometimes be used interchangeably, they are not the same.
“Under the new graduation requirements if you’ve had to have a course modified where the content being taught is different, that can’t be counted toward high school graduation requirement,” Carla Miller, from South Dakota Parent Connection said.
Miller is trying to make sure parents are aware of the changes so they can make the best decisions for their child’s future.
Kennecke: Is it pretty common for special ed students to get a modification?
Miller: It can be common, yes. And one of the things we are finding is that parents don’t really understand the differences between a modification and an accommodation. When we ask which is your child receiving, they don’t know.
Depending on a student’s disability, sometimes modifications to curriculum cannot be avoided, which has parents concerned.
“In a lot of classes he’s in the same class as his classmates, but when you get into math and get into sciences and the more technical topics, then yes he does. He has some modifications and he needs those. He’s still learning at the rate he can learn at of course, but yes, he has some modifications,” Kouri said.
Special Education experts say it’s important for parents and their children’s educators to start planning for high school earlier than ever.
“My main concern is, A: Do families know about this new set of requirements that are being fully implemented this year and B: Are they open to every person with a disability and are they all going to having the potential to completing a diploma?” Powers said.
While the South Dakota Department of Education has revised regular educational standards; Powers says that is not the case for alternate educational standards.
“Every student, whether you’re a student with a disability or not, is supposed to be working toward those standards. So if those standards aren’t aligned, meaning you have these alternate standards– meaning your regular standards are here and your alternative standards are here. If they’re not aligned then that means I’m not working toward the same standards everybody else is. And we don’t have that right now,” Powers said.
“Students whose progress toward meeting content standards is measured by alternate achievement standards/descriptors would not be considered to have met the same standards requirements to obtain a regular high school diploma. Measuring students’ understanding based on alternate achievement standards/descriptors would essentially equate to a modification of general content because it reduces the scope and complexity of the knowledge and skills expected of the student. At any time, an IEP team may determine that a student may enroll in the courses required to achieve a regular diploma and not modify the coursework in order for the student to meet the required courses necessary to achieve a regular high school diploma.South Dakota Department of Education
KELOLAND Investigates repeatedly asked the South Dakota Department of Education for an on-camera interview on these issues which impact some 22,085 special ed students statewide.
Instead, the department issued us the follow statement:
“The graduation requirements that the South Dakota Board of Education Standards adopted in 2018 have not changed state regulation of graduation requirements for students on individual educational programs (IEP). In order to receive a regular high school diploma, students on IEPs must meet the same state graduation requirements that apply to all students. Modifications are practices that change, lower, or reduce learning expectations and therefore may negatively impact a student’s ability to receive a diploma. It’s critical for parents, teachers, and students to discuss and clearly understand this potential impact of modifications.”SD Department of Education in response to our request for an interview
While some states offer more than one diploma, South Dakota does not. Students with disabilities who require modifications to curriculum may end up with a certificate of completion from their school instead.
“Words matter and when you talk about diploma versus certificate of completion, that doesn’t sound like a big deal. But that is. It’s a lifetime of change for someone who already has had a struggle and that struggle has not been their fault. So why should we put up one more roadblock that is going to make things more difficult for them? It just shouldn’t happen,” Alberty said.
“I think when you don’t live in this world, you don’t realize how hard these kids work and yes maybe you can say that a normal curriculum is here and their curriculum is here–but for them, it’s no less impactful and no less challenging. It’s no less work and there’s no less sense of accomplishment when they get there,” Kouri said.