Out with the Old, In with the New: Changes to the Alternative Diploma Pathway
In June 2022, Governor Newsom signed Assembly Bill 181 (“AB 181”). That bill added Section 51225.31 to the Education Code and established a new high school diploma pathway for students with significant cognitive disabilities who had taken or would take the California Alternative Assessments (“CAA”) and would complete California’s minimum coursework requirements for graduation. AB 181 also required local educational agencies (“LEAs”) to exempt qualifying students from any additional diploma requirements that may have been required by their LEAs. On July 10, 2023, Governor Newsom signed Senate Bill 114 which enacted clarifying changes to this section, including revising the eligibility criteria for receipt of an alternative diploma.
So, what’s new?
- Eligibility for the alternative diploma now applies to students who entered 9th grade during the 2022-2023 school year, or later. This means that students who began high school as a 9th grader any time prior to the 2022-2023 school year are not eligible to receive the alternative diploma but may be awarded a regular high school diploma or a certificate of completion consistent with their LEA’s graduation policies and state law minimum graduation coursework requirements. As such, and in most cases, students graduating at the end of the current 2023-2024 school year are not eligible for the alternative diploma.
- Students are no longer required to take the CAA aligned to alternate achievement standards in 11th grade to be eligible for the alternative diploma. Instead, a student’s IEP team must determine whether the student is eligible to take the CAA. While there is no definitive legal guidance on this issue, removing the requirement to take the CAA appears to maintain consistency with existing law by allowing IEP teams to make an individualized determination as to whether a student with a significant cognitive disability should participate in alternative assessments.
- IEP teams no longer need to explicitly notify a student’s parent or guardian of whether their child may be eligible for the alternative diploma prior to entering 10th grade. Although the recent amendments to Education Code Section 51225.31 removed notification requirements, LEA’s should consider the benefits of providing parents with information about all diploma options as early as possible since issuance of a diploma, alternative diploma or certificate of completion comes with significant implications affecting a student’s future and further impacts the type of IEP program to be developed, discussed and offered by a student’s IEP team. Additionally, such a practice would also fulfill a longstanding legal principle that supports facilitating parent and student involvement in the IEP process.
What’s still the same?
The alternative diploma still only applies to a narrow sub-group of students. In order to be eligible for an alternative diploma, a student must (as described in 20 U.S.C. § 7801(23)(A)(ii)(I)(bb)) have a significant cognitive disability and be on track to complete California’s minimum coursework requirements for graduation. LEAs must also exempt qualifying students from any additional local diploma requirements.
It is important to remember that receipt of an alternative pathway diploma does not change a LEA’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to eligible students until they exit from special education due to reaching the maximum age of 22. It also does not constitute a change in placement like graduating with a regular high school diploma. Students earning an alternative diploma must also be permitted to participate in graduation ceremonies and graduation-related activities with peers.
As the alternative diploma is still relatively a new concept, we anticipate there will be additional information stemming from California court decisions, the Office of Administrative Hearings, and the California Department of Education as LEAs wade through this process.
Having decades of experience in working with LEAs on a variety of education matters, our Student Services and Disabilities Law Group is uniquely positioned to assist LEAs with these and other student services and special education law matters. If you have any questions, you are welcome to contact us.