On August 19th, we had Theresa Nicholls and Alison Gauld from the TN Department of Education join us to talk about the four diploma options in Tennessee. Some parents submitted questions in advance and we will summarize her answers below. You can watch the full video at this link:


The video starts with introductions of Loria Hubbard, Director of Programs from The Arc TN, Theresa Nicholls, Assistant Commissioner of Special Populations for the Department of Education, and Alison Gauld, Director of Low Incidence and Autism.


Assistant Commissioner Nicholls updates on continuous learning plans (CLPs) submitted by districts.  She discusses work between stakeholders and State Board of Education on cleaning up Special Education statute.  Between November and January there will be time for public feedback.  

Loria (The Arc of TN): We have been looking at the State Department of Education website to see district’s CLP and did not see anything specific mentioned about Special Education. Can you talk some about that and what that means?

Assistant Commissioner Nicholls: The intention of the continuous learning plan is to provide a plan on how districts will proceed during virtual or in person instruction. The CLP’s make sure the 180 days required for a school year will occur whether in person or virtual. Support for students with disabilities is interwoven in each plan. The plan must meet the rubric set forth by the State Board of Education. IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and provisions of FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) have not changed. Those expectations remain whether in person or virtual learning. The State is working with districts to make sure students needs are being met globally. Compliance with IDEA is ongoing.

Loria (The Arc of TN): If someone looks for their district’s CLP and does not see it posted on the website, what does that mean?

Assistant Commissioner Nicholls: The ones posted have been reviewed and approved in all sections of the rubric provided by the State Board of Education. Districts are at different stages.

Loria (The Arc of TN): What are the requirements if a student wants to pursue an Occupational Diploma?

Allison Gauld: These decisions are important decisions that families and IEP teams need to make together. The hope is work is an option for all students. Work is the crux for this diploma. The Skills, Mastery, and Experience Mastery Assessment (SKEMA) is the measure indicating whether student has met the requirements for Occupational Diploma. The other requirement is two years of work experience. Work experience is purposely not defined. It can be paid or unpaid, at home, at school, or at a place of employment. Work can be any number of hours per week. Allison gives examples of how some work experiences may look at home. There is a webpage on the Occupational Diploma and there is a Secondary Transition Page. The SKEMA can be found on these pages. https://www.tn.gov/education/student-support/special-education/special-education-secondary-transition.html

Loria(The Arc of TN): What is the difference between the Alternate Academic Diploma and the Occupational Diploma, and how does one know which is the best fit for a person?

Allison Gauld: Tennessee has four diploma options. The Regular Diploma is the starting point for ALL students. Along the way, data may indicate this is not the right pathway for a student. Use the data to scaffold back, if necessary. The Alternate Academic Diploma is another option. This is an academic program for students with the most significant disabilities. Students must be participating in the Alternate Academic Assessment (MSAA). There is a 1% participation threshold for this diploma statewide. It is a 22 credit academic diploma. Unlike the Regular Education Diploma, special education services do NOT terminate upon receipt of the Alternate Academic Diploma. The next diploma is the Occupational Diploma. It is focused on practical work. The Occupational Diploma and Alternate Academic Diploma may be combined. The fourth option is the Special Education Diploma. This diploma is for students whose disability has impacted them to such a degree that the other diploma options are not a fit. Students receiving this diploma are honored for working on skills such as communication and self-advocacy.


Assistant Commissioner Nichols: There is a lot of hard work going on in districts. The work will have an impact on our students with disabilities. We appreciate the opportunity to hear from the field. It is insightful information that allows the Department to make informed decisions.
We hope this summary is helpful. For more information on the four diploma options in Tennessee, you can click on this resource: https://tennesseefamil.wpengine.com/diploma-options-in-special-education-in-tennessee-2/