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Special Education

Administrative Advisory SPED 2018-2:
Secondary Transition Services and Graduation with a High School Diploma

Administrators of Special Education, Superintendents, Parents, Students, and Other Interested Parties
Russell Johnston, State Director of Special Education
March 26, 2018



Massachusetts state law does not explicitly address graduation requirements for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). This has resulted in some confusion in determining when a student with an IEP is ready to graduate and, more specifically, whether and when a student may refuse a diploma in order to continue receiving transition and other special education services.

This advisory is intended to clarify:

  • The issuance of a high school diploma to students with IEPs consistent with applicable federal and state law; and
  • Best practices for schools, students, and parents1 in planning secondary transition services and student graduation and reducing the potential for disputes.

Legal Background

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a student's graduation with a "regular high school diploma" ends the student's eligibility for special education and related services.2 Therefore, graduation is a change in placement subject to procedural protections and written notice.3

Massachusetts authorizes one regular high school diploma for all publicly funded students, including students with IEPs. Under state law, all students seeking to earn a high school diploma must meet the competency determination (CD) standard, as well as local graduation requirements.4 Massachusetts state law does not, however, require that a diploma must be issued to a student who has achieved a CD and completed local graduation requirements. Rather, these two conditions are prerequisites for graduation.5

Under the IDEA, even if a student with disabilities has met state and local requirements for graduation, a district may not properly graduate the student if the district did not provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) to that student.6

The standard that districts must meet in providing FAPE was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2017. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1,7 the Court held that FAPE is delivered through an educational program that offers the student the chance to meet challenging objectives and, in light of the student's circumstances, is appropriately ambitious and reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress.8 Although an IEP is not a guarantee of a specific educational or functional result for a student with a disability, the IDEA does provide for revisiting the IEP if the progress the IEP Team expects is not occurring.9

The FAPE requirement applies to secondary transition services, as well as other special education and related services.

The Secondary Transition Process

Under IDEA and Massachusetts special education law, special education and related services are determined through the IEP process. IEPs for students with disabilities must include secondary transition services beginning no later than age 14. These transition services must be "a coordinated set of activities … designed to be within a results-oriented process that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child's movement from school to post-school activities …." Transition services must be based on the student's needs, strengths, preferences, and interests, and include "instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and, if appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and provision of a functional vocational evaluation."12

Beginning with the IEP in effect when the student is age 14, the student must be invited to all IEP meetings where the Team discusses transition planning.13 At each annual IEP meeting, starting no later than age 14 and each year thereafter, the Team should explicitly discuss transition planning and services in culturally proficient ways14 and document in the IEP the following: the student's current progress toward meeting goals; needed academic and functional goals and objectives aligned with the student's postsecondary goals; the secondary transition services to be delivered during the upcoming year; and the specific anticipated year of graduation. Transition services should build the student's skills in a stepwise and cumulative manner, as measured by transition assessments.15 The goal is to help the student move purposefully toward successful completion of the high school program and readiness for planned postsecondary opportunities.16

Students who have reached the age of majority (18) and who have decision-making authority should be encouraged and allowed to take the lead in making their own decisions about their IEPs and transition plans, in discussion with other IEP Team members.17 Students can make informed recommendations and decisions as part of the IEP Team if they have been supported to develop strong self-determination skills,18 have participated in IEP meetings in meaningful ways over the years, and understand the secondary transition process and the purpose of each service they receive.

In addition to transition planning, each year the IEP Team must make an individualized decision regarding the student's anticipated graduation date and document that date in the IEP. This satisfies the IDEA requirement that parents receive prior written notice of graduation.19

Reducing and Resolving Graduation Disputes

Because receipt of the high school diploma ends a student's eligibility for special education and related services, the parent or student with decision-making authority may invoke due process protections under IDEA by requesting a hearing or other dispute resolution procedures.20 The potential for disputes, however, is greatly reduced through effective transition planning and communication.

In the final year of high school, if the student has earned the CD, is on track to complete all local graduation requirements, and the school has provided the student's IEP services, including secondary transition services that meet the requirements of FAPE, the district should plan to issue a regular high school diploma consistent with the projected graduation date included in the current IEP. This projected date may be the same as the student's age peers, or it may be a later date consistent with the student's IEP.

Regardless of whether the student graduates with their peers, the great majority of students with IEPs will receive their high school diploma on the date identified in the IEP and, if previous annual discussions have occurred as outlined above, the student's graduation date will be known and fully anticipated.

In rare circumstances, the IEP Team may determine that the provision of FAPE requires that the student continue to receive additional transition services and/or other special education services, even though the student has earned the CD and completed all local graduation requirements. The Team will then specify on the IEP the needed services and revise the date for the student's graduation with a high school diploma.

A parent or student with decision-making authority may not unilaterally "refuse" a diploma for which all requirements have been met. They may, however, reject the final IEP on the basis that the student did not receive FAPE. If this occurs, the student and district have opportunities to resolve the disagreement through mediation or formal dispute resolution procedures under the IDEA. This includes filing a due process complaint and requesting a hearing with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA).

During the pendency of such a dispute, school districts must follow stay-put procedures by retaining the student in the current program and placement unless the school district and the parent or student with decision-making authority agree otherwise.21 Situations such as these should be rare, however, if the district, student, and family have communicated effectively about the IEP, transition services, and the anticipated graduation date.

In circumstances where a student will not graduate with their peers, whether because of a pending FAPE dispute or agreement by the IEP Team to extend the student's graduation date, the student may wish to participate in graduation ceremonies. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education encourages districts to allow such requests. For those students who meet the requirements of Massachusetts Chapter 71B, Section 16, districts must allow such participation.22


Secondary transition services are an essential component of the IEP for a student age 14 or older, and thus are a component of FAPE. These services assist students to move toward achieving their postsecondary goals. To reduce the potential for graduation disputes and increase the likelihood that students will be well prepared for life after high school, the Department encourages districts, students, and families to communicate fully and work collaboratively to ensure the planning and delivery of appropriate secondary transition services in a timely manner.



Last Updated: March 27, 2018
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