Ready or Not: Massive Diploma Changes Are Here for Virginia Students

The author, Juliet Hiznay, is a special education advocate and attorney in private practice in Northern Virginia. For information about her practice, visit http://jdhiznay.com/ 

A glutton for punishment, I spent most of today watching a live stream of a Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) meeting about the Standard Diploma in Virginia with “by invitation only” stakeholders.  Listening to state educators brainstorm about diploma standards and accommodations for children with special needs may seem boring, but these changes should be important to you.  Massive diploma changes are here, VDOE is charged with issuing the regulations, changes are effective next year, and the regulations are nowhere near ready.

Virginia has been making a lot of changes to diploma standards and this year’s is a doozy.  In 2012, the Virginia General Assembly eliminated the “Modified Standard Diploma” (effective next year for rising 9th graders) and declared that the “Advanced Studies Diploma shall be the recommended diploma for students pursuing baccalaureate study.” Virginia Code § 22.1-253.13:4(D)(2).  These two changes have implications for all Virginia students.  Nevertheless, today’s discussion focused primarily on what “credit accommodations” should be made for students with disabilities to obtain the Standard Diploma.  What is clear from this brainstorming session?

Students entering 9th grade for the first time next year will be affected and there are no regulations.  IEP teams are drafting the education plans for students who require a plan that meets their needs, but have no idea what tools will be available.  Those tools will have to be identified in the IEP to be affective.  Does this seem timely?

Educators have a lot of ideas but lack consensus even about basic issues, such as, should credit accommodations be available to students who are not identified as having a disability? There are plenty of at risk students, including those for whom English is not their first language, who could benefit from credit accommodations but won’t qualify.  Not everyone agrees that is okay.  In fact, there are concerns even about “transient” students, such as students in foster care, who move from place to place where local diploma policies may differ.

Other major themes today included:  not watering down the Standard Diploma and not leaving behind students who cannot meet the challenges of the Standard Diploma.  Does it strike anyone else that these two goals may be at odds?  Some participants seemed to object to the narrow goal of the meeting, indicating that the group was drafting an “invisible modified standard diploma” when they ought to be drafting a standard diploma that will work for all kinds of students, including students who do not receive special education services.

Statistics shared with the group suggest that tens of thousands of Virginia special education students could be forced into the “special diploma,” a diploma that is totally worthless, if the credit accommodations selected by VDOE are not sufficiently robust.   If they are robust, that may make post-secondary education programs wary of accepting students who have achieved only a “Standard Diploma” from Virginia. This in turn may make the “Advanced Studies Diploma” a prerequisite for post-secondary education, and yet at this time no credit accommodations are being considered for that Diploma, despite the fact that twice-exceptional students may have great difficulty meeting the standards in some narrow areas of study.  If you are a single course short, or a single verified credit short, you don’t get it.

I applaud any effort that reflects high standards for our children.  I applaud the effort to provide more incentives to open mainstream classrooms to children with disabilities.  I certainly applaud the creative brainstorming I heard today, such as allowing internships.  Unfortunately, the discussion today reveals that brainstorming is still at the policy level.  Can VDOE be ready for the rising 9th graders in 2013-14?   The train is leaving the station, but neither school districts nor parents nor high school students know where it’s headed.

Published January 17, 2013; All Rights Reserved Juliet D. Hiznay