Learning differences: Is an alternative curriculum for my student?

Samantha RathfonEducator Insights

Do you have a student who isn’t making measurable progress in the general education setting? Do you feel like you’ve tried everything to support him or her? Do you feel like your state assessment isn’t the most appropriate measure of your student’s skills?

Time and time again, I have spoken with teachers who are looking for the answers to these questions. While the answers may vary depending on the student and his or her situation, teachers may want to consider alternative curriculum.

What is alternative curriculum?

The alternative curriculum is designed for students who aren’t making growth in the general education setting, even with the highest amount of support. By meeting with your individualized education program (IEP) team, you can determine that a more focused curriculum is what is most appropriate for your student. Through the alternative curriculum, you, as the teacher, are able to design a curriculum that targets the specific needs of your student. By providing this support, you are able to make considerable growth towards these goals with focused instruction and practice opportunities.

There are many pros and cons around the alternative curriculum which can cause controversy between educators. So, how do you know if the alternative curriculum is the appropriate track for a student?

There are three big things to consider when deciding if the alternative curriculum is the best track for your student.

1. Student progress and student growth are different.

Is the student making progress in the general education classroom? When proving that a student should be on the alternative curriculum, you first have to prove that the general education setting is not their least restrictive environment. You have to provide evidence that even with the most support provided, the student is not able to make measurable growth in the general education setting. It is important to remember that the alternative curriculum should not be seen as the easy way out for students who are progressing more slowly, but for students who are not able to make growth in this setting even with the highest amount of support.

*The Tennessee Department of Education provides a flow chart that can help guide your thought process when determining if this is the best setting for your student.

2. Different perspectives are important and vital.

Talk to the student’s parents. Talk to the student’s general education teachers. Talk to your local education agency (school district). Work with your IEP team to determine what is the best option for the student.

If you receive hesitation from your IEP team members, remind them that this doesn’t have to be forever. You, as a team, decide each year if the student will continue to participate in the alternative curriculum and take the alternative assessment. If the student makes substantial progress one year, and the team feels like a student no longer needs the alternative curriculum, GREAT! If not, the student can continue to take the alternative assessment as the team feels is appropriate. If you think this is what is best for the student, keep advocating and pushing to do what is best for the student.

3. Students on the alternative curriculum do not receive the standard high school diploma.

While students participating in the alternative curriculum do not meet the qualifications to earn the standard high school diploma, there are a number of other diploma options available to them in the state of Tennessee.

  • Alternate Academic Diploma
  • Occupational Diploma
  • Special Education Diploma

Alternate Academic Diploma: In January 2018, the Tennessee State Board of Education approved the addition of an alternate academic diploma to the list of graduation options available for high school students. To earn the alternative diploma students must meet a number of criteria. A student earning the alternative diploma must:

  1. Participate in the alternate assessments
  2. Earn a minimum of 22 credits
  3. Receive special education services and make satisfactory progress on an IEP
  4. Have satisfactory records of attendance and conduct
  5. Complete a transition assessment measures

With this diploma option, students will be able to learn in their least restrictive environment while meeting the standards for an academic diploma.

Occupational Diploma: This is a diploma for who are working towards occupational skills goals. Students on this diploma do not count towards the district graduation count. In order to receive this diploma, individuals must complete a series of skills assessments and acquire 2 or more years of work experience.

Special Education Diploma: The Special Education diploma is awarded to high school students who have not met the requirements for the regular high school diploma, receive special education services and have shown satisfactory growth towards Individualized Education Program (IEP) goals, and have satisfactory attendance and behavior reports. Students who receive this award can continue to work towards the regular high school diploma until the end of the school year that they turn 22 years old. Students who earn the special education diploma do not count towards the district’s graduation rate.

For more information on the different diploma options that are available to a student participating in the alternative curriculum and assessments in Tennessee, you can visit the Tennessee Department of Education’s website which clearly outlines the requirements of each diploma type. This resource will be helpful in determining which is the right path for your student, as well as serve as a helpful resource for parents who are trying to decide if the alternative curriculum is the best option for their child.

Ultimately, you and your team need to answer this important question: How are we going to help each student be successful this school year? If that requires a student to be working on skills that are not part of the general education curriculum, I would, as the teacher, push for my student to be on the alternative curriculum. Before making a decision, educate yourself and your IEP team on the alternative curriculum and assessment to determine if this really is the best option for your student.

As a native Michigander and current Nashville transplant, Samantha has had the opportunity to experience a variety of different education settings. In her current position as an Exceptional Education Instructor at STEM Preparatory Academy in southeast Nashville, she assists students in accessing the general education setting, teaches Reading and Math Intervention courses, as well as creates and implements an alternative curriculum for students who are set to take the alternative state test. Her passion lies in creating a curriculum that is designed with specific students in mind, addressing their individual goals and needs.