State hopes to redirect students with disabilities from worthless ‘adjusted diplomas,’ toward the real thing

Will Jensen gets a lot of parent feedback as Nevada’s director of special education, but one recent letter that Gov. Brian Sandoval’s office passed his way has been particularly haunting.

A mother wrote to Sandoval, asking him if he could pardon her daughter from the High School Proficiency Exam. If he could pardon a murderer, she reasoned, he could certainly waive the requirement that she pass the test to graduate with a real diploma.

“I had to send her a letter that stated Nevada law and our current system, and that I’m unable to help,” Jensen told lawmakers on Wednesday. “But you get to stay till you’re 22, so let’s push through if we can, darling.”

Jensen is backing a bill, AB64, that would create an alternate pathway to graduation for special education students who master the content of their high school courses but hit a wall when it comes to the high-stakes tests at the end. The testing requirement is blamed in part for Nevada’s dismal 28 percent graduation rate among students with disabilities.

Nevada currently has a workaround that lets special education students walk at graduation if they can’t pass the exam — it’s called an adjusted diploma — but it’s essentially a participation certificate and doesn’t count as a true graduation.

Students sometimes don’t realize how worthless the designation is until they try to go to college or enlist. Students generally aren’t eligible to serve in the military or get federal financial aid with an adjusted diploma.

“In my opinion, there’s open discrimination against kids who have this,” Jensen said.

Last school year, Nevada gave out 883 standard diplomas to students with disabilities, compared to 890 adjusted diplomas awarded. Many of those students have learning disabilities but have otherwise done well in their classes.

Nevada’s practice goes against national trends — 40 states have done away with certificates akin to adjusted diplomas, according to a report on the topic from the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities.

AB64 calls for regulations that would allow the estimated 12 percent of Nevada students on an individual education program (IEP) a better shot at a standard diploma. Instead of taking an exam, students might submit a portfolio of work to demonstrate proficiency in a subject.

“We can create a scientifically based, researched rubric to ensure that this in no way diminishes the integrity of our assessment system and what we call a diploma,” Jensen said. “We’re talking about something equivalent that just fully considers the student and the student’s needs in a way that our current assessment does not.”

Coursework would still need to align with state standards, although there could be flexibility in the class selection. Students could swap in a consumer math class or take a life skills course to  meet requirements.

A proposed amendment would make the change retroactive to help students who received the adjusted diplomas in the past few years. The adjusted diploma would also still be available for a smaller number students who don’t succeed on  the alternate route to a standard diploma.

Parents who urged lawmakers to support the bill included a father whose son received an adjusted diploma but is back at Shadow Ridge High School in Las Vegas hoping to get a real one if he’s eventually able to pass the proficiency exams. He’s become an expert in wiring and could probably be an electrician, but without a standard diploma, he’ll probably end up working as a handyman and making $30,000 less a year, according to his father.

Advocates lined up behind the bill, which they said would set high expectations for students even if it circumvents the proficiency exams.

They’re “on this Kafkaesque process of having to take it over and over again, even though they’re very high-performing students, just bad test takers,” said Alex Cherup of Nevada PEP, which supports families of children with disabilities. “At its core, it’s providing a pathway to graduation that takes Nevada from what past presidents have called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”