Adulthood Transition: Graduation and Curriculum

By Diana Maltz, Esq

What is the difference between a diploma and a certificate of completion?

A high school diploma certifies that your child has met state and school mandated graduation requirements.  A certificate of completion certifies that your child has completed high school, but did not meet graduation requirements.

Many students with IEPs receive certificates rather than diplomas.  This does not mean that your child cannot receive a diploma if he/she has an IEP.  It is important that you are aware of whether your child is on the diploma-track or the certificate-track, as this will determine your child’s post-secondary education and employment options. 

Your child will receive a certificate rather than a diploma if his/her curriculum has been modified to the extent that he/she does not meet graduation requirements.  If you are unsure of what your child’s high school’s graduation requirements are, you can request that the school provide you with this information or check whether those requirements are published on the school or district website.

How will receiving a certificate of completion (as opposed to a diploma) affect my child’s post-secondary options?

Not all colleges and employers accept certificates of completion.  Most four-year universities require a diploma in order to enroll in a degree program.  Certificates of completion are not accepted for enlistment in the U.S. military.

If you are concerned about your child’s post-secondary options and current curriculum, you may raise your concerns with the IEP team.  If you are considering a change from diploma-track to certificate-track, it is recommended that you research your local community college, vocational program, etc. degree requirements so that you are fully informed before making the decision.

How do I find out whether my child will receive a diploma or a certificate?

This information will be listed in your child’s IEP and, often, in your child’s ITP.  When looking at the IEP document, locate the page containing the offer of FAPE.  There should be a section titled “Graduation Plan” or “Curriculum.”  Here it will indicate whether your child is working toward a diploma or a certificate of completion.  Depending on the school district, the IEP may use different language to convey your child’s curriculum.  If the IEP states that your child is on an “alternate curriculum,” your child is working toward a certificate of completion.  If your child is placed in a “special day class,” he/she is working toward a certificate of completion.

If you are unable to locate this information in your child’s IEP, you may reach out to your child’s teacher or the assistant principal and ask about it.

If my child graduates with a diploma, can he/she continue to receive special education and related services?

No.  Once your child receives a diploma, his/her eligibility for special education and related services ends.  The school district may confer a diploma upon your child once he/she meets graduation requirements.

If my child is on the certificate-track, can he/she continue to receive special education and related services after receiving his/her certificate?

Yes.  A child who is eligible for special education and does not receive a diploma may continue to receive special education and related services until the age of 22.  Your child may receive a certificate of completion before the age of 22 (typically at the end of high school); however, he/she may still receive special education and transition services.

How do I find out when the school district plans to graduate my child?

If your child is on the diploma track and approaching completion of the graduation requirements, his/her ITP and/or IEP should list an “anticipated graduation date.”  If you cannot find this information, you may reach out to your child’s teacher or the assistant principal and ask about it.

Graduation with a diploma is a change of placement for special education students, meaning that the school district must provide some form of prior written notice within a reasonable amount of time before graduating your child.  This notice may come in the form of a formal letter or a discussion at an IEP meeting.  If the school district fails to provide notice, the change of placement (graduation) may be inappropriate.

How can I change my child’s curriculum?

If you disagree with your child’s curriculum and wish you change it, you may raise the issue at an IEP meeting.  A parent cannot, however, unilaterally change the child’s curriculum if the IEP team does not agree to the change.  It is important to raise any such disagreement as early as possible because, once your child meets graduation requirements, the school district may graduate him/her over your objections.   Keep in mind that a change from diploma-track to certificate-track will limit your child’s post-secondary education options and, therefore, should not be made lightly.

If you are concerned about your child’s curriculum and/or if the school district refuses to change the curriculum, you may want to consult an attorney.

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