On June 25, 2006, Michael Bredemeyer threw his tasseled cap in the air and cheered after getting his high school diploma. Two days later, his parents mailed the diploma back.
Michael, now 19 years old, has learning disabilities and finished high school at a seventh-grade reading level, despite scoring above average on IQ tests. The Bredemeyers say he passed some classes because teachers inflated his grades and accepted poor work. By awarding him a meaningless diploma, they say, school officials avoided paying for ongoing instruction.
“I felt proud because he had worked so hard,” says Michael’s mother, Beverly, her voice breaking. “You don’t want to take that away from him. But you knew it wasn’t real. What’s he going to do in the future? Will he be able to go to college and get a job?”
The Bredemeyers represent a new voice in special education: parents disappointed not because their children are failing, but because they’re passing without learning. These families complain that schools give their children an easy academic ride through regular-education classes, undermining a new era of higher expectations for the 14% of U.S. students who are in special education.
Years ago, schools assumed that students with disabilities would lag behind their non-disabled peers. They often were taught in separate buildings and left out of standardized testing. But a combination of two federal laws, adopted a quarter-century apart, have made it national policy to hold almost all children with disabilities to the same academic standards as other students.