What is the Alternate Academic Diploma, and Why Would a Student Want One? 

/ October 20, 2020

By Alison Gauld

“What? Another diploma? We already have three others—the regular diploma, the occupational diploma, and the special education diploma.” This was probably your first reaction upon hearing about the newest Tennessee diploma, the alternate academic diploma (AAD). The answers to these questions are found in the history of the diploma’s development as well as the new policy.


One of the foundational federal laws governing public education is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first signed in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson. Periodically, Congress will update and reauthorize the law. These revisions are an important part of continuous school improvement and serving students. The most recent reauthorization was the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. One of the most notable additions to this act is the recognition that students with complex needs are amazing students who are learning and accomplishing their goals with the support and planning of their IEP team. However, these students are not able to earn a regular diploma, and so their success has not always been adequately recognized. Because of this, the Every Student Succeeds Act included an option for states to create an alternate diploma, specifically for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.

The Tennessee Department of Education was excited for the option to develop the alternate academic diploma for many reasons, but primarily because:

  • An alternate academic diploma policy would help define appropriate grade-level, standards-aligned expectations for schools, teachers, parents, and students.
  • Employers, inclusive higher education programs, and adult services (i.e., Vocational Rehabilitation) will be better informed of a student’s strengths, skills, and needs.
  • There are rigorous requirements—earning the alternate academic diploma indicates readiness for acceptance to inclusive higher education programs, Project SEARCH programs, or other adult services and/or training.
  • Students with the most significant cognitive disabilities should be recognized for their accomplishments and learning.

Tennessee was one of the first states to develop and implement an AAD policy in order to make this diploma option available to students as quickly as possible, beginning in the fall of 2018. The AAD policy is located within State Board of Education High School Policy 2.103. (Scroll down to Operations of Public Schools, 2.103, High School Policy, then click on the words “High School Policy,” and the information starts on the bottom of page 2 of that document.)

Alternate Academic Diploma Requirements

An IEP team determines if a student is eligible for the AAD. To be eligible, a student must

  • not be able to earn the regular diploma,
  • have an active Individualized Education Plan,
  • have a significant cognitive disability, and
  • participate in the alternate assessment.

(See the low incidence webpage for details.)

Eligibility is only the first step. Any diploma awarded should reflect the student’s learning and coursework; the same is true for the alternate academic diploma. To support students in earning the diploma, 16 high school course codes have been created. These courses are aligned to the grade level courses but have course requirements that are specially designed to support students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Together, they will help students earn 14.5 of the 22 needed credits to graduate with the AAD. The AAD course requirements are appropriately rigorous and challenging to help students develop critical thinking, problem-solving, analysis, and other skills needed for learning and application of new skills. The remaining required credits include physical education, electives, and a focused area study, perhaps aligned to the student’s career interests. In all courses, the student should receive any accommodations and/or modifications identified by the IEP team. More information on the course requirements can be found on the low incidence webpage.

Also, any student earning the regular diploma or the alternate academic diploma must pass the U.S. civics assessment with a score of 70 percent or higher. The student should be provided the accommodations and/or modifications that are deemed necessary by the IEP team. Please refer to the department’s website for more information on the civics assessment requirements.

The final requirement for the AAD is a completed transition assessment(s) that measures, at a minimum, postsecondary education and training, employment, independent living, and community involvement. A transition assessment is also used to inform the transition plan in the IEP and may be completed at any time prior to graduation.

Alternate Academic Diploma and Postsecondary Success

As is true of all students with an IEP, students may continue in the public school through 21 years of age or until they receive a regular diploma. The AAD is not considered a “regular diploma”; therefore, a student may continue his or her schooling, even after earning the AAD. The students can also work on the alternate academic diploma until they earn it, or until they age out of school. Many schools are implementing a two-part plan aligned to the opportunities available to students without disabilities. For example, the first four years of high school are academically focused and support students in earning the AAD. The remaining years, through age 21, are focused on supporting students in achieving the occupational diploma. By following this plan, students are able to leave the public schools with both the AAD and the occupational diploma, providing more opportunities for postsecondary success.

In summary, the AAD is a diploma that both recognizes students’ academic learning and accomplishments while simultaneously preparing them for their postsecondary goals. The department is looking forward to celebrating with our first class of graduates in the spring of 2022.

For more information on the alternate academic diploma, please visit the low incidence webpage, or contact Alison.Gauld@tn.gov.

My thanks to Alison for explaining what I’ve considered to be a complex issue, and one that’s of importance to many of our students with disabilities, their families and their educators. If you have questions, feel free to contact Alison at the email address immediately above or contact me at janet.shouse@vumc.org. As always, thanks for reading and stay well!

Alison Gauld smilingAlison A. Gauld is the Tennessee Department of Education Low Incidence and Autism Coordinator for Special Populations. She taught special education for children with low incidence disabilities within the public schools for more than 20 years. At the department, Alison has been involved in the policy, guidance, and training, including such issues as instructionally appropriate IEPs, instructional strategies, behavior, occupational diploma, alternate academic diploma, transition, supported decision-making, and alternate assessment. Alison’s work reflects her strong belief that all students can and will achieve. She has a bachelor’s degree in special education and a master’s in educational leadership from Arizona State University.

October 20, 2020

Share this Post