Receiving a High School Diploma in New Mexico

by Jennifer McClarin

Future Reflections

Fall, 2003

Reprinted from Volume 7, Number 4, of Howe’s Now , a publication of the Council of Schools for the Blind, COSB.

Editor’s Note: There are two things that I find noteworthy and newsworthy about the following article. First, it provides a peek into the complexities and changes occurring around something that once seemed rather straightforward—the high school diploma. I do not have a position, pro or con, on the diploma program adopted by New Mexico and as described below. My purpose in reprinting this article is merely to stimulate—maybe even jolt—readers into investigating what’s happening on the diploma front in their own states, and the implications of any changes for all blind students. The other item I find of great interest concerns a specific graduation requirement at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped (NMSVH), and is contained in the last two sentences (feel free to skip ahead and read them if you like). Kudos to the NMSVH! Other schools for the blind would do well to emulate this forward-looking practice in the support of Braille literacy. Here is the article in full: In January 2000, New Mexico instituted new standards for special education students to receive a diploma. The New Mexico State Department of Education (SDE), via an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) Graduation Task Force, addressed the issues of integrity, consistency, and accountability and developed new state regulations in regards to IEP graduations. Students receiving special education services are able to earn their high school diploma by following one of three clearly defined programs of study: Standard, Career Readiness, and Ability. These are called Pathways to the Diploma.

Based upon student needs and the impact of their disability, the IEP team determines the most appropriate program of study prior to the student entering high school. Rationale for the selection of the particular program is documented in the IEP and goals and objectives are written. A graduation program, including a four-year plan of courses, must be a part of an IEP prior to the student entering the ninth grade or reaching age fourteen. Due to the core curriculum needs of students with a visual impairment, sometimes the four-year plan becomes a five-year plan. A longer high school program is best discussed as an option when a student is in middle school, so that when high school plans are being made, a five-year plan may be viewed as an opportunity rather than a failure.

The program that must always be considered as the first option is the Standard Program. In this program a student must complete all SDE high school graduation requirements, with or without accommodations. In New Mexico, graduation requirements consist of the completion of a minimum of twenty-three units in specified content areas and passing of the New Mexico State Competency Exam.

The Career Readiness Program takes into account a student’s needs as a result of the disability and allows for substitution of classes as appropriate. It may be chosen only after the Standard Program of Study was considered. The career readiness program is based on the New Mexico Career Readiness Standards with Benchmarks. The student’s IEP should document classes, courses, and/or experiences that will be utilized to assure that the student achieves the IEP standards and benchmarks.

The Ability Program is based upon a student’s needs with IEP goals, objectives, and benchmarks identified to provide the most appropriate program for the student. Under this graduation plan, the majority of the goals and objectives relate to life and community skills. The ability program is typically identified for students with severe cognitive, physical, and/or mental health challenges, and may be chosen only after the other two programs of study have been considered.

All IEPs should document the student’s progress toward completing the identified program of study. Students who do not take the New Mexico High School Competency Exam must take the New Mexico Alternative Assessment (developed and approved by the SDE). Successful completion of the program of study earns the student a high school diploma and the right to participate equally in all graduation activities. The receipt of a high school diploma terminates access to special education services, as does a GED.

If, at the time of planned completion of a program, the student has not completed all graduation requirements, the student may receive a certificate indicating the number of credits earned and the grade completed. If a certificate is awarded, a follow-up plan of action must be made and the student is still eligible for special education services until receipt of a diploma or until the end of the academic year in which the student turns twenty-two years old. A student receiving a certificate has the option of participating in graduation activities at the time they would normally have received their diploma (i.e. with their “class) or they may elect to participate in graduation at a later date when they can receive their upgraded diploma. All pathways lead to the same diploma. The Standard New Mexico General Education Diploma will be awarded upon completion of any of the three programs of study. All diplomas awarded by a school district must be identical in appearance, content, and effect, except that symbols or notations may be added to individual student’s diplomas to reflect official school honors or awards earned by students.

In addition to courses stipulated by the state, the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped (NMSVH) requires the completion of two other classes unless it is determined by the IEP team to be inappropriate for a student. Seniors are required to take a Life Competencies course. This class focuses on survival skills after high school. Students research careers, practice applying and interviewing for jobs, complete resumes, open checking accounts, fill out rental agreements and tax forms, complete college applications and practice functional activities in many other life skill areas. The other requirement for graduation from NMSVH is completion of two semesters of Braille. For students who are already proficient Braille users (assessed annually), this requirement is waived.

Jennifer McClarin is a Teacher/Inclusion Coordinator at the New Mexico School for the Visually Handicapped.