Diplomas, Report Cards, and Transcripts for Students with Disabilities (K-12)

Our office often receives questions regarding diplomas, grades, report cards, and transcripts for students with disabilities. This Legal Update summarizes the law in this area.


October 31, 2017

To:  Superintendents, Member School Districts (K-12)

From: Jennifer E. Nix, Assistant General Counsel

Subject: Diplomas, Report Cards, and Transcripts for Students with Disabilities

Memo No. 35-2017

Our office often receives questions regarding diplomas, grades, report cards, and transcripts for students with disabilities.  This Legal Update summarizes the law in this area.


Diplomas and Certificates of Completion


Most students with disabilities are capable of earning a regular high school diploma, and the law evinces a clear preference for all students attempting to earn a regular high school diploma.[1]  The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), defines both a regular high school diploma and an alternate diploma.[2]  However, California has not yet adopted standards for a state-defined alternate diploma.[3]  Upon graduation and receipt of a regular high school diploma, a student’s right to a free, appropriate public education is terminated.  A student who receives an alternative degree that is not fully aligned with the state’s academic standards continues to be eligible to a free, appropriate

 public education until he/she ages out of eligibility.[4]


State law specifies a minimum set of courses that must be met to graduate from high school and receive a regular high school diploma.  Local educational agency (LEA) governing boards have the authority to supplement the state minimum requirements at the local level.[5]  “Most California public high schools require the equivalent of between 22 and 26 yearlong courses,” or “between 220 and 260 local units for high school graduation.”[6]


A school district may award a student with a disability a certificate or document of educational achievement or completion if:

1.      The individual has satisfactorily completed a prescribed alternative course of study approved by the governing board of the school district and identified in his or her IEP;


2.      The individual has satisfactorily met his or her IEP goals and objectives during high school as determined by the IEP team; and


3.      The individual has satisfactorily attended high school, participated in the instruction as prescribed in his or her IEP, and has met the objectives of the statement of transition services.[7]

The law does not require completion of a certain number of credit hours in order to receive a certificate of completion.[8]

Students who meet the criteria for a certificate of completion are eligible to participate in any graduation ceremony/activity in which a student of similar age without disabilities would be eligible to participate.  The right to participate in graduation ceremonies does not equate a certificate or document of educational achievement with a regular high school diploma.[9]

Report Cards and Transcript Requirements

An LEA can sometimes identify special education classes on a high school student’s transcript, or indicate on a student’s report card that a student took a special education class.  This issue is governed by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, both of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of a disability.

There is no caselaw interpreting the ADA or Section 504 with respect to transcripts and report cards.  However, the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has issued several nonbinding guidance letters detailing LEAs’ obligations in this area.  The most comprehensive of these letters is Letter to Runkel, issued by the OCR in 1996, and still relied on by the OCR in case processing.  In Letter to Runkel, the OCR stated the following:

·         An LEA cannot identify special education classes on a student’s transcript in order to indicate that the student has received modifications in the general education classroom.

·         It is permissible to have a course name that imply that it was a special education program, such as basic, modified curriculum, or learning center.

·         An LEA can use asterisks or other symbols on a transcript to designate a modified curriculum in general education, provided that all students’ grades are treated in a similar manner, not just those of students with disabilities.

·         An LEA can disclose the fact that a student has taken special education courses to a post-secondary institution if the student and the student’s parent/guardian have prior knowledge of what is on the transcript and have given written consent.

·         A student with a disability who is enrolled in a general education class for reasons other than mastery of the course content may be excluded from the class grading system and instead evaluated on the goals and objectives of the IEP.  The IEP team should make the determination that the student may take the class for no credit and be evaluated based upon criteria outlined in the student’s IEP.

·         Grades in special education classes must be included in districtwide grade point average (GPA) standings that lead to a ranking of students by GPA for honor roll and college scholarship purposes.

The OCR addressed the difference in report cards and transcripts in Letter to Hudler (California Department of Education), issued in 2006.  In this letter, the OCR stated that:

·         LEAs have different obligations with regard to report cards and transcripts because transcripts are sent to post-secondary institutions, whereas the purpose of a report card is to inform parents of grades.

·         LEAs must provide students with disabilities with report cards that are as meaningful as the report cards given to students without disabilities.

·         A student’s transcript cannot include information indicating that a student has been enrolled in a special education program, has received special education and/or related services, or has a disability.[10]


Please contact our office with questions regarding this Legal Update or any other legal matter.


The information in this Legal Update is provided as a summary of law and is not intended as legal advice.  Application of the law may vary depending on the particular facts and circumstances at issue.  We, therefore, recommend that you consult legal counsel to advise you on how the law applies to your specific situation.


© 2017 School and College Legal Services of California


All rights reserved.  However, SCLS grants permission to any current SCLS client to use, reproduce, and distribute this Legal Update in its entirety for the client’s own non-commercial purposes.

[1] The ESEA generally requires states to adopt challenging academic content standards and aligned academic achievement standards.  Pursuant to Education Code § 56345 and 34 C.F.R. § 300.320, the IEP for each student with a disability must contain statements of measurable annual goals that would enable the student to progress in the general education curriculum and a statement regarding any accommodations necessary to measure the student’s performance on state and district assessments.  The ESSA also prohibits a school district from precluding a student who takes an alternate assessment from earning a high school diploma.  Additionally, state law describes certificates of completion, and then states: “It is not the intent of the Legislature by enacting this chapter to eliminate the opportunity for an individual with exceptional needs to earn a standard diploma issued by a local or state educational agency when the pupil has completed the prescribed course of study and has passed the proficiency requirements with or without differential standards.”  Education Code § 56392.

[2] 34 C.F.R. § 200.34.  A state-defined alternate diploma is not the same thing as a diploma based on meeting IEP goals.

[3] California’s State Plan under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), submitted September 15, 2017, states: “Currently, students with the most significant cognitive disabilities are held to the same graduation requirements as all other students.”  (Page 48)

[4] 34 C.F.R. § 300.102(a)(3).

[5] Education Code § 5122.5.

[6] California Department of Education, High School Graduation Frequently Asked Questions (Dec. 23, 2016), available at http://www.cde.ca.gov/ci/gs/hs/hsgrfaq.asp.

[7] Education Code § 56390.

[8] However, it could be discriminatory to not award any credits to students with disabilities who are enrolled in courses that do not lead to a regular high school diploma.

[9] Education Code § 56391.

[10] OCR based this decision on its belief that, by identifying programs as being only for students with disabilities, students with disabilities were singled out with respect to disclosure of their disability, which constitutes different treatment on the basis of a disability.  Accordingly, if a student’s transcript indicated that a student received special education or a related service, or that the student had a disability, it would violate Section 504 and the ADA.  Notations about modified or alternate educational curriculum remain permissible because such notations do not disclose that a student has a disability, are not used exclusively to identify programs for students with disabilities, and are consistent with the purpose of a student transcript.