Graduation Requirements

Graduation requirements are defined by states or districts. Graduation from high school with a regular diploma is an indicator of the extent to which education is preparing students to meet the needs of a global economy. Since the 1980s, states and districts have increased their graduation requirements to include more rigorous academic coursework consistent with challenging academic content standards adopted by states. 

State graduation rates are included in federally-required accountability using a measure known as the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR). This rate is based on the number of students who graduate within four years after their ninth grade year with a regular diploma or an advanced diploma. With the enactment of the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), states can decide to use an extended-year Cohort Graduation Rate, which allows for including students who earn a regular diploma one or more additional years, or the summer immediately after an additional year. If a state uses an extended-year Cohort Graduation Rate, it must use this calculation for all students; it cannot chose an extended rate only for certain subgroups (such as students with disabilities). The state must still calculate a four-year ACGR. 

The ACGR and extended Cohort Graduation Rate also allow for the inclusion of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities who are assessed using an alternate assessment based on alternate academic achievement standards (AA-AAAS ) and awarded a state-defined alternate diploma that is standards-based, aligned with the state requirements for a regular high-school diploma, and obtained within the time period for which the state defines a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Some states do not offer state-defined alternate diploma. Graduation rates must be disaggregated by students with disabilities and English learners, as well as by other subgroups.

States or districts require coursework completion to earn regular, advanced, or state-defined alternate diplomas. Some states also require students to pass a test to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. These tests increasingly focus on the states’ challenging content standards. 

In addition to regular diplomas and state-defined alternate diplomas, states and districts have created a variety of end-of-school documents to indicate the status of their students. These include certificates of completion, certificates of attendance, special education diplomas, and a host of other documents. Students who graduate with these options are not counted as graduates when calculating a state’s ACGR or extended-year Cohort Graduation Rate. The effects of receiving an end-of-school document other than a regular diploma or a state-defined alternate diploma are important to consider for all students, but especially for students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities. 

Frequently Asked Questions

There is not a simple answer to this question because there is so much variability across states. Even when students must pass the same test to earn a regular diploma, their required coursework may be different. In some states, students may receive a regular diploma for meeting Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals and objectives, yet there may be a notation to indicate that the diploma was earned at an individual level. Because of these variations, it is difficult and probably unwise to make generalizations. It is important not to assume what the policies and options are in any state or district, but instead to find out exactly what are the specific requirements and their consequences.

The outcomes of receiving a diploma other than a regular diploma are not well understood, in part because there is little research on the topic. Existing research findings do suggest that receipt of a diploma other than a regular or advanced diploma of some type puts students at a disadvantage in the postsecondary education environment, in the job market, and in joining the military. The state-defined alternate diploma should indicate that the student has met standards to be on track for postsecondary education and training or competitive integrated employment. Additional research is needed.

Students with disabilities, including English learners with disabilities, who have graduated from high school with a regular diploma may not be eligible for special education services following graduation. State and local laws vary with respect to continued special education services, so it is important that these kinds of implications of diploma options be made public. Defining what constitutes a regular diploma is an important part of the clarification.

Social promotion refers to the practice of promoting students from one grade to the next even though they have not met the requirements to do so. This term often is contrasted with the term "retention" which refers to the practice of keeping a student in a grade due to not meeting requirements to move to the next grade. Both social promotion and retention raise concerns. Research has documented that retention is a concern because students retained in a grade may not receive the instruction they need and may be more likely to drop out of school. Social promotion, a practice that affects more students with disabilities than other students, also is a concern because students who have not demonstrated their knowledge and skills are less likely to end school with the knowledge and skills to graduate. This is particularly a problem when exit exams are used to certify skills before awarding a regular diploma because students who have been socially promoted are unlikely to pass the exam, and then either leave with a different exit document, or simply drop out of school.

States typically provide students with a number of opportunities to retake graduation tests. How retesting interacts with disability issues should be considered. Retesting must be available to students with disabilities, English learners, and English learners with disabilities just as often as it is to other students. This means that special editions of the test are needed, and accessibility features and accommodations must be provided during retesting. Some states have found that decision makers request additional accommodations with each retake, under the belief that more accommodations will give students the benefit needed to pass (or, perhaps, with the recognition that certain accommodations really are needed even though the student hoped not to need them). In some states, the format of a retest may be different from that of the original assessment (e.g., shortened), or accommodation policies may change (to allow additional accommodations not allowed during the regular assessment). These types of changes must be considered when decisions are made about the participation of individual students in retesting opportunities.

States increasingly have options available to students who need an "alternative route" to show what they know and are able to do relative to graduation standards. These alternatives are designed to allow the student to earn a regular diploma, and are variously called waivers, appeals, options, variances, and a host of other terms. These options may be available to all students, or only to students with disabilities. They may or may not require that the student first fail the exit exam. States have a variety of criteria that must be met for a student to enter a process to earn a regular diploma through avenues other than taking and passing the regular exit exam.

It is important to explore the options that are available and what the specific requirements are because they are different from state to state and sometimes change frequently within states. It is also important to distinguish routes that result in a regular diploma from those that result in other types of diplomas or end-of-school documents, such as a special education diploma, or certificate of completion. It is essential also to consider the nature of the alternative route because it may change what is expected of the student − and this will have implications for the ultimate educational outcomes and future success for the student who pursues an alternative route process.