A struggle over graduation rates puts services for students with disabilities in question
Senate Bill 20 seems like a straightforward fix, but it's caused parents a lot of worry and confusion.
The bill, which had no opposition during the legislative session, was designed to align Oregon high school graduation requirements with a new federal law. But now parents of children with disabilities are worried they will have to pick getting a diploma for their child or getting them the services they were promised until age 21. This, says a top special education advocate, would make those students' dreams of attending college or getting a job much more difficult.
Officials at the Oregon Department of Education and the school administrators' association say the worries are unfounded. They are confident a solution will be worked out in the 2018 legislative session to guarantee students who need transition services will get them. But with so many stakeholders involved, they are light on details of how exactly the law will change.
It all started with the 2015 passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA, as it's called, replaced No Child Left Behind as the over-arching national K-12 education law.
The federal government wants all states to use one high school diploma — the one that a "preponderance" of students earn — to count as their graduation rate. That way, the argument goes, comparing the graduation rates from state-to-state will be more meaningful.
But a change like that means many states will see a sudden and politically unpopular drop in their graduation rates.
Several states, like Oregon, award high school diplomas with different standards to students with a "demonstrated" inability to achieve the regular requirements.
In the 2015-16 school year, 1,296 students earned a modified diploma. Take them away, and the state's 74.8 percent graduation rate for that year would have been about 3 percentage points lower.
Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis), a lawmaker who is also the mother of a man with an intellectual disability, spearheaded the push for a "modified diploma" in 2007.
"They aren't 'lesser diplomas,'" Gelser says. "These kids, many of them are working harder than their classmates who receive regular diplomas."
Oregon's modified diploma still requires 24 credits, but those credits can be different than the standard credit requirements, such as taking more "electives," which could include non-grade-level core requirements. Gelser says this is very different than other states that may offer a diploma that amounts to little more than a certificate of attendance.
The state has successfully argued to the U.S. Department of Education before that the modified diploma is "substantially similar" to the regular diploma.
Senate Bill 20 maintains and expands the requirement that schools to treat these diplomas the same, including affirming the right of modified diploma graduates to walk at graduation and to receive federal financial aid for college.
Benson senior is saved, but others hang in balance
But Angela Jarvis-Holland, executive director of the Northwest Down Syndrome Association, says if the goal is to get students with modified diplomas to college, this isn't enough.
Her son Daniel, a Benson Polytechnic High School senior, has been looking forward to being the class of 2018 for years.
"This was going to directly impact Dan, as he is graduating this year," she says. "He's expecting that he's working hard for his modified diploma."
When the family agreed to a modified diploma track for him, Jarvis-Holland said they were promised he would still get transition services until age 21.
As part of a new initiative called Think College, students with developmental disabilities at Portland State University are attending college in part due to these transition services funded through the State School Fund.
But with S.B. 20, the rules changed. If a modified diploma is now "the same" as a regular diploma, then those graduates are done with the K-12 school system. Districts don't have to pay for their education anymore.
The board of the Oregon Department of Education approved Sept. 28 a rule change delaying that effect for this year's high school seniors — students graduating before July 2018 will still get the right to transition services.
Jarvis-Holland — who says it's unfair for families to deal with a unilateral change when they have already legally signed up for a modified diploma track — wants the state to grandfather in all students who have already signed up for a modified diploma track.
Cindy Hunt, a lobbyist for the ODE, says she is confident a more permanent fix will be worked out in 2018's short legislative session. She says with so many variables still in play — such as what exactly the federal government wants and will accept as a diploma — it is difficult to predict what the new Oregon law might say.
But Hunt quashes any rumors that transition services will stop at age 18 or 19.
"No, they will not. Absolutely not," she says. "All the state partners, I think I can confidently say, they want to maintain the services for the kids if they need them. That is our number one goal."
Likewise, Morgan Allen, a lobbyist for the Confederation of School Administrators, says no one is trying to take away transition services from students who need them.
"We are hopeful that we'll find a long-term fix in the 2018 session," Allen says. "It's one of those few times that everyone agrees."
Ricki Sabin, senior education policy advisor for the National Down Syndrome Congress, agrees that students should receive needed services, but she doesn't think that the feds will ever agree that Oregon's modified diploma can count toward its graduation rates.
"Oregon, from what I can see, is not understanding the law," says Sabin, who is based in Maryland. In her state, there is only one diploma and her child with Down syndrome did not meet the requirements to receive it. Though she says she "would have loved" to have had such an option for him, she still thinks it "makes no sense" that a modified diploma could be counted as the same as a regular diploma when they are different.
"We're not saying 'don't have the modified diploma,' it's a question of whether it counts as a regular diploma," Sabin says. "Whether you like the federal law or not, it doesn't meet the definition for that."
Indiana is also struggling to comply with the new standards. An August report in Education Week says the state's "general diploma" recipients — 12 percent of the graduating class — would no longer count toward that state's graduation rates.
Indiana officials, according to the report, feel they will be penalized politically and economically for providing for the needs of its students to have multiple pathways to graduation.
Hunt says that in the worst-case scenario that an agreement on what a modified diploma means isn't reached, students could still delay receipt of a diploma until age 21 and get transition services or receive college credits through their K-12 district partnerships.
Jarvis-Holland, the Benson mother, doesn't like the sound of that.
"College is college," she says.