Addressing Trends and Developments in Secondary Education and Transition
February 2005 • Vol. 4, Issue 2
High School Graduation Requirements and Students with Disabilities
By David R. Johnson, Martha Thurlow, Anna Cosio, and Christine
High school graduation requirements vary from state to state and district
to district across the United States. These requirements establish criteria
that students must meet in order to obtain diplomas or certificates of completion.
An increasingly common graduation requirement is the achievement of a passing
score on an exit exam, a practice often referred to as high-stakes testing.
With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) signed into law
by President George W. Bush in 2002, schools are required to test students to
document their academic progress. Schools have also been mandated by this legislation
to increase rates of graduation. To comply with the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), states must include all students in achievement testing,
including students with disabilities.
Policy makers hold varying opinions about what should be required for graduation
from high school, whether the same requirements should apply to all students,
and how these requirements should be determined. The area of high-stakes testing
fosters debate, with individuals on both sides presenting reasoned arguments.
Johnson and Thurlow (2003) conducted a study in which representatives from all
states were asked how their state determines graduation requirements and the
role that high-stakes testing played in those requirements. Information specifically
pertaining to students with disabilities was also collected. The viewpoints
of both proponents and opponents of high-stakes testing are presented in the
study, and the findings of that study are summarized in this brief.
What are Graduation Requirements, and Who Determines Them?
Graduation requirements are criteria set by states that students must meet
in order to obtain diplomas or certificates of completion from their high schools.
In most states, there are multiple requirements for graduation; these may include
attendance, minimum grade-point average, minimum credits completed, and passing
scores on high-stakes tests or other benchmark exams.
While some states set graduation requirements and allow for no alterations,
others allow local education agencies (LEAs) to make modifications to the requirements.
Some states provide guidelines but allow LEAs to exercise discretion in determining
exact requirements. Other states allow LEAs to have complete control over graduation
requirements. When LEAs are allowed to add to or create graduation requirements,
school boards and/or district administrative staff typically set these requirements.
In some cases, Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams play a role in determining
graduation requirements for students with disabilities. Johnson and Thurlow
found that it was most common for states (39 states of the 46 responding) to
establish minimum requirements and give LEAs the option to add to those requirements.
Arguments For the Use of High-Stakes Testing as a Graduation Requirement
Many believe that the use of high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement
motivates students to work harder and focus on key learning goals that will
help them succeed on such exams. These proponents also believe that high-stakes
testing will motivate teachers to develop better instructional methods to help
students achieve passing scores. Many proponents of high-stakes testing believe
that students with disabilities are harmed by low expectations of others and
will not learn to their fullest potential if they do not participate in high-stakes
testing. It is argued that lower expectations and diminished standards will
prevent students with disabilities from succeeding and being motivated to do
well. Little is known about the effects, either positive or negative, of high-stakes
testing as a graduation requirement. Research in this area has been inconclusive.
Arguments Against the Use of High-Stakes Testing as a Graduation Requirement
Opponents of high-stakes testing believe this practice leads to multiple negative
outcomes. These include increased dropout rates, particularly for students with
disabilities, students of color, and students of low socioeconomic status; increased
retention rates for students who do not pass the high-stakes tests; and more
students referred to special education as a result of pressure on teachers and
school administrators to increase the number of passing scores. Teachers are
also likely to narrow curriculum and instruction in an effort to “teach
to the test” so that students will be more likely to pass exit exams,
or teachers may be likely to place limitations on curricular and program options
for students needing extra assistance to pass exams. Furthermore, the impact
of students receiving alternative diplomas in place of standard diplomas is
unknown in terms of future higher education and employment options. Again, little
research exists to support this position.
What is the Impact of Graduation Requirements on Students with Disabilities?
Modifications in graduation requirements available to students with disabilities
vary from state to state. While some states make no allowances and hold all
students to the same graduation standard, others allow for reduction in the
number of credits required, offer alternative courses to earn needed credits,
allow use of different standards for performance, and/or modify curriculum.
Several states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia,
as well as the District of Columbia, allow for no modifications, but the overall
trend across the nation is to allow for some modification of graduation requirements
for students with disabilities who might not otherwise graduate.
Modifications for students with disabilities are often proposed in states
using high-stakes testing. Johnson and Thurlow found that 27 states required
youth with disabilities to pass an exit exam in order to graduate from high
school. Most of these states (23) used the same test, with the same minimum
passing scores, for all students. One state used the same test for all students
but had a different passing score for students with disabilities, and two states
had different tests and different passing scores for students with disabilities.
One state did not respond.
For those students with disabilities who initially fail high school exit exams,
there are a variety of options available including retaking the test, using
an alternative exam form, taking an entirely different exam, remediating specific
objectives failed on the exam, petitioning for an exemption that will still
allow receipt of a standard diploma, or granting of an alternative completion
Table 1 lists the consequences, both intended and unintended, that may occur
when using high-stakes testing as a graduation requirement for students with
Table 1. Consequences of Requiring Students with Disabilities
to Pass Exit Exams to Receive a Standard High School Diploma
- More students with disabilities will participate in the general education
curriculum and achieve results.
- Higher academic expectations will improve students’ access to
postsecondary education and employment.
- The differences between general education and special education students
are reduced—all students are held to the same standards, are required
to pass the same exams, and receive the same diploma.
- Exit exams signify a minimum standard for all students to achieve—holding
all students to these standards gives clearer meaning and value to diplomas
- Educators will use differentiated instructional strategies, including
the use of accommodations, to assist students in meeting higher academic
standards and passing exit exams.
- Some students with disabilities will fail to receive standard diplomas.
- Higher dropout rates may result as students’ frustrations rise
amid difficulties in passing exit exams.
- Student self-esteem is lowered by repeated failures on exit exams.
- Dissatisfaction and conflicts with parents may sometimes result; possibilities
for lawsuits may also occur.
- Some students may need to remain in school longer to meet the requirements
of standard diplomas.
- States and LEAs may be forced to create alternative diplomas and
pathways to ensure that students exit with some form of high school
States are under increased pressure to improve graduation rates for students
with disabilities, while ensuring that the high school diploma retains the meaning
of a mark of academic achievement. States and schools are increasingly using
high-stakes testing as a component of graduation requirements. The long-term
consequences of this trend are unclear. Little research has been done to examine
the effects, both negative and positive, of high-stakes testing. Johnson and
Thurlow (2003) offer several recommendations to help states: (a) meet the challenge
of having fair graduation requirements while remaining accountable for all students;
(b) clarify the assumptions underlying state graduation requirements; (c) ensure
that students with disabilities have an opportunity to learn the material they
will be tested on in state and local assessments; (d) make high school graduation
decisions based on multiple indicators of students’ learning and skills;
and (e) conduct ongoing research on the intended and unintended consequences
of state graduation requirements.
Johnson, D. R., & Thurlow, M. L. (2003). A
national study on graduation requirements and diploma options for youth with
disabilities (Technical Report No. 36). Minneapolis, MN: University
of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved February 9,
2005, from http://education.umn.edu/nceo/OnlinePubs/Technical36.htm
National Center on Educational Outcomes
University of Minnesota
350 Elliott Hall
75 East River Road
Minneapolis, MN 55455
The Transition Center at the University of Florida
G315 Norman Hall
University of Florida
P.O. Box 117050
Gainesville, FL 32611-7050
352.392.0701 ext. 267
Authors David R. Johnson, Anna Cosio, and Christine Bremer are with NCSET
at the University of Minnesota. Martha Thurlow is with the National Center on
Educational Outcomes at the University of Minnesota.