July 31, 2008
Employer Perspectives on High School Diploma Options for Adolescents With Disabilities
By Hartwig, Ryan Sitlington, Patricia L
According to the amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, students with disabilities are required to participate in state- and districtwide assessments with appropriate accommodations and modifications when necessary. The data on the performance of students with disabilities on these assessments indicate that they are not performing well compared to their general education peers. As a result, some states are issuing alternate exit documents from high school in the form of occupational diplomas, General Educational Development diplomas (GEDs), and certificates of attendance, achievement, or completion. The authors interviewed a random sample of employers, asking them if they were willing to hire prospective employees with these types of alternate diplomas. Employers were least willing to hire individuals with certificates of attendance, achievement, or completion and most willing to hire those with occupational diplomas and GEDs. Keywords: accountability; assessment; evaluation; employment; secondary conditions; to work; transition(s)
IDEA Amendments of 1997 and IDEA 2004
The IDEA Amendments of 1997 mandated that students with disabilities participate in state and district assessments and required a statement of individual modifications in the Individualized Educational Program (IEP) regarding the administration of assessments. If the IEP team determines that an assessment is not appropriate, a statement regarding why the assessment is not appropriate and how the student will be assessed has to be included in the IEP. In response, states developed or revised alternate assessments, which often focus on functional skills (NCEO, 2003b). IDEA 2004 continues to reinforce the need for students to participate in state assessments.
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB)
NCLB (2002) builds on and strengthens the IDEA Amendments of 1997 to include all students with disabilities in state and district assessments. Under NCLB, assessments must be tied to academic content standards, which identify what students will learn, and academic achievement standards, which specify how well students must learn (NCEO, 2003a). All students must be tested in reading and math in Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school; by 2007, students will also be tested in science. NCLB also reinforces the need for alternate assessments; however, they must be aligned with state content standards and are to be used for students with significant cognitive disabilities (Elliott & Thurlow, 2006; Roach, 2005).
State- and Districtwide Assessments, Diploma Options, and Students With Disabilities
Over the years, assessments and graduation requirements have led to differentiated diploma options. Some states have used assessments to make decisions about student promotion or high school graduation (deFur, 2002). The Center on Educational Policy (2003) collected information from states with current or planned exit exams. They found that although NCLB does not mandate graduation requirements or diploma options, it is influencing the performance goals, content, and timetables of state exit exam systems. A majority of states with current or planned exit exams intended to use these exams to comply with the act's high school testing mandates.
In surveying the secondary schools involved in the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTS2), the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (2004) found that 80% of students with disabilities (ages 14-18) took the mandated standardized test, 11% were given alternate assessments, and 9% were exempted from testing. There were no differences in participation rate at different grade levels. Almost three fourths (71%) of the students with disabilities who took the mandated standardized test received some type of accommodation or modification.
Students with disabilities, however, are performing at levels below their general education peers on districtand statewide assessments. In many cases, this results in their earning an exiting document from high school other than a regular high school diploma (GaumerErickson, Kleinhammer-Trammil, & Thurlow, 2007; Thompson & Thurlow, 1999; Thurlow & Thompson, 2000; Ysseldyke & Thurlow, 1999). As authors have pointed out (Gaumer-Erickson et al., 2007; Johnson & Thurlow, 2003), little is known about the consequences of different diploma options in terms of access to employment or postsecondary education.
Diploma options. Johnson and Thurlow (2003) found that there was a range of high school diploma options across the country. All 46 states that responded to their survey reported that they offered a standard or regular high school diploma. Of these states, 11 also offered honors diplomas, 12 states offered IEP or special education diplomas, 17 states granted certificates of attendance, 11 states granted certificates of achievement, 4 states offered occupational diplomas, and 22 states provided variations of these diploma options. Thirteen states extend to students with and without disabilities either a single diploma option, the regular or standard diploma, or the standard diploma plus an honors diploma. Of the 46 states that responded, 34 offered multiple diploma options. As Johnson and Thurlow stated, the question is whether graduating from high school with a standard diploma or an alternative diploma or certificate grants students access to postsecondary education programs and future meaningful employment.
Diploma options and employment. The high school diploma has long been valued as the essential document for postschool success, including getting into college, the military, and high-paying careers (O'Neill, 2001). Although the labor market today places a higher value on postsecondary credentials, the high school diploma still marks an important milestone in the achievement of young adults (Swanson, 2004). Diploma recipients consistently earn more money than noncompleters (Day & Newburger, 2002; Miao & Haney, 2004). Studies have shown that individuals who lack a standard diploma earn approximately 19% less per hour (O'Neill, 2001) and experience higher unemployment and incarceration rates than individuals with a standard diploma (National Leadership Summit on Improving Results for Youth, 2003). The number of manufacturing jobs that require high school diplomas is increasing dramatically because industrial jobs are demanding higher levels of education (Lanford & Gary, 2000).
Unger (2002) reviewed the literature related to employers' perceptions of persons with disabilities in the workforce. Among her findings were the following:
* The type and severity of the disability may affect the extent to which persons with disabilities are included in the workforce.
* Employers appear willing to sacrifice work performance and work quality in exchange for a dependable employee. This may be affected, however, by factors such as economic and labor market conditions.
* Employers report concerns surrounding the work potential of employees with disabilities, possibly related to existing myths and misconceptions rather than direct experiences.
* There appears to be a renewed emphasis on recognizing the significance of employing workers with disabilities to enhance employers' image in the community.
Price and Gerber (2001) interviewed employees with some previous experience or familiarity with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They compared their results with a similar study previously conducted by Gerber (1992). Results from both studies indicated that many companies, whether large or small, would be interested in hiring and keeping employees with disabilities. As Unger (2002) stated, there has possibly not been a time in history in which economic conditions, technology, and disability-related legislation have coexisted to generate a promising employment outlook for persons with disabilities. The research is scarce, however, regarding whether employers are willing to hire prospective employees with exiting documents other than a standard high school diploma (Gaumer-Erickson et al., 2007; Johnson & Thurlow, 2003).
Purpose and Scope of Investigation
The purpose of this study was to determine employers' attitudes toward hiring people with disabilities who have earned different types of high school diplomas: (a) standard diplomas; (b) occupational diplomas; (c) certificates of completion, attendance, or achievement; and (d) General Educational Development diplomas (GEDs).
To obtain a representative pool of employers, the authors contacted the president of the chamber of commerce (COC) of a nearby major midwestern city (population 69,000) for a comprehensive list of employers who were members of the COC. The COC provided a list that included each of its members organized according to 387 occupational categories, that is, accountants or certified public accountants, abstracters, advertising agencies, and so on. At the time, the COC listed 979 members. The high-level aggregation groupings of the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) System Manual (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1980, 2000) were used to combine the COC members into manageable groups. The highlevel aggregation groupings offered by the SOC System Manual are titled Management, Professional, and Related Occupations; Service Occupations; Sales and Office Occupations; Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance Occupations; Production, Transportation, and Materials Moving Occupations; and Military Specific Occupations. The category Military Specific Occupations was not included, because all jobs in the U.S. Armed Forces require a high school diploma or a GED.
The SOC System Manual, however, did not offer definitions for these high-level aggregation groupings. The authors felt that it was important to have established definitions of the major occupational groups to assist in assigning COC employers to the proper group. Therefore, the 22 major grouping titles and their definitions from the SOC System Manual of 1980 (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1980) were clustered into the five high-level aggregation occupational groups offered by the 2000 SOC System Manual.
Each of the 387 occupational categories used by the COC was then placed under one of the five high-level aggregation groupings by two independent raters, who were students in a career-vocational master's program. An initial reliability level of 84% was reached by these raters. Following a second discussion of the occupational groupings, the raters were able to reach 100% agreement on the group assignments. The end result of this process was the assignment of each of the 979 members of the COC to one of the five high-level aggregation groupings.
The interview form consisted of seven open-ended questions. The introduction to the interview stated that the purpose of the study was to "determine the effect that different types of diplomas may have on the employment of young adults with disabilities." Questions 1 and 2 of the interview form dealt with demographic information, including the total number of employees and the number of employees with some type of mental or physical disability. (Although all disabilities were the target of this study, it was felt that employers would be the most accurate in identifying employees with these two types of disabilities.) Questions 3 and 4 asked for employer interest in the type of high school diploma earned versus the fact that someone had graduated from high school and what a high school diploma meant to him or her, respectively. Questions 5, 6, and 7 asked employers whether they would consider hiring someone with an occupational diploma; certificate of completion, attendance, or achievement; and a GED, respectively. If the employers answered yes to any of the diploma type questions, they were asked, "In what situations?" If they answered no, they were asked, "Why not?"
The diploma options included were taken from Johnson and Thurlow (2003). The following definitions were used:
* Occupational diploma: A diploma that students receive for completing the requirements specializing in certain occupations, that is, metal fabricating, auto mechanics, carpentry, or other skills areas.
* Certificate of completion, attendance, or achievement: A diploma offered to students who have met the requirements of their special education program but not the requirements of the school's general education program.
* GED: A diploma offered to those who take the coursework and pass an exam offered by community colleges and/or high schools that covers very basic curriculum in the areas of math, science, reading, and writing.
Five employers were randomly selected from those who had been placed under each of the five SOC high-level aggregation groups. Within each of the five groups, an attempt was made to contact the employer by telephone and to set up an appointment to interview that person. If the person on the list could not be reached, the next person was called. This procedure was repeated until five employers from each of the five high-level aggregation groupings had appointments for interviews. In one case, an employer did not show up for an interview. After the coauthor made two separate attempts to reach this individual, the next person on the list was contacted and interviewed.
At the beginning of each interview, the questionnaire cover letter was read to each employer. The employer was allowed to read the letter and then was asked to sign and date the letter to indicate consent to participate. Each employer was interviewed verbally to allow the interviewer to probe responses more deeply as needed. The employer responded to each question, and the interviewer recorded the responses on the interview form. All interviews were conducted by the lead author.
Results and Discussion
Table 1 shows the average number of employees within each high- level aggregation grouping and the total group of employers. The range of people employed at all businesses was from 1 to 170. Table 1 also provides the average number of employees with a physical or mental disability as reported by the employers for each high-level aggregation grouping and for the total group of employers. The Management, Professional, and Related Occupations grouping had the smallest average number of employees; and the Production, Transportation, and Materials Moving Occupations grouping reported the highest average. All employer groups had a low average of employees with a physical or mental disability.
Importance of a Specific Type of Diploma Versus Graduation
As stated previously, the introduction to the interview indicated that the purpose of the study was to determine the effect that different types of diplomas may have on the employment of young adults with disabilities.
Table 2 presents information on the number of employers (by occupation group and total) who were interested in the specific type of diploma versus just the fact that the individual had graduated from high school. Of the 25 employers interviewed, 5 were interested in the specific type of diploma the prospective employees had earned, 10 were interested only in the fact that they had graduated from high school, and 10 did not care whether it was a specific type of diploma or just high school graduation.
The 10 employers who had no preference between type of diploma versus graduation from high school stated that they were more willing to look at the individual's characteristics and how well he or she performs during the interview. Comments these employers made included the following:
* "I would consider other factors such as their job experiences, personal characteristics, and so on."
* "I look at the individual, what they can do, and what their goals are, but mostly what they can do."
* "This job takes more physical than mental dexterities, therefore the type of diploma isn't important."
* "I am not concerned with either one. I am looking for their job history, willingness to work, and if they call me back after they apply."
* "Neither; I look at a person's background, work history, and how they present themselves."
* "I look more at their mental ability to do the job, if they are work oriented, and can do labor-intense jobs."
* "I would have to look at the person's background information."
In further analysis of the employers who had no preference, it was found that they had the tendency to look at a person's work ethic and expect those they hire to have a strong work ethic.
As shown in Table 2, there were some differences in responses across the five occupational groups. The Service Occupations group (2 of 5 employers) was most interested in the specific type of diploma. The Management, Professional, and Related Occupations group (3 of 5) and the Production, Transportation, and Materials Moving Occupations group (3 of 5) were most interested in whether the student had graduated from high school. None of the Sales and Office Occupations group was interested just in the type of diploma. Even when analyzed by occupational groups, the data showed the employers had little interest in the type of diploma.
Employers' Feelings About a High School Diploma
Question 4 of the interview focused on what a high school diploma meant to the employers. For the most part, it appeared that employers had not given it much thought. However, when they did consider this question, more than half of the employers interviewed stated that they were not impressed by a diploma, it meant nothing to them, or it had little value in their workplace. Employers placed little emphasis on the meaning of a high school diploma. They were more willing to look at the individual and his or her characteristics. Those employers who did have an opinion of what a high school diploma meant to them considered it to have little meaning or bearing on a person's "employability."
Nine of the 25 employers felt that a high school diploma was the "most basic and minimal level of education" a person applying for a job could have. Employers commented that a high school diploma would get a person only an entry-level job and that more schooling or on- the-job experience was the only way to be promoted.
Thirteen of the 25 employers surveyed stated that they were not as concerned with what a diploma meant as much as they were concerned with a person having "determination, willingness, stick- to-it-ness, some level of prior achievement, and a certain level of seriousness while on the job." Other examples of common responses included the following: * "They are just beginning to meet life's major requirements."
* "If they can put enough effort into getting a high school diploma, I would hire them for an entry-level position."
Specific Diploma Options
The remaining interview questions addressed the employers' willingness to hire students with each of the three specific types of exit documents addressed in the literature. Each type of exit document was defined for the employers immediately before each question was asked. Definitions found in the literature were used, sometimes rephrased in language more easily understood by the employers.
Occupational diploma. Table 3 presents the responses by total group and occupational groups related to whether employers would consider hiring someone with an occupational diploma. Twenty of the 25 employers were willing to hire those with occupational diplomas, 4 were unwilling, and 1 was not sure. There was little difference across occupational groups, although Service Occupations (3 of 5 employers) was the least willing and Sales and Office Occupations (5 of 5) was the most willing to hire those with occupational diplomas.
For those willing to hire employees with occupational diplomas, the situations in which they would hire them included the following:
* "As long as they had a Commercial Driver's License and good references."
* "It's a 12th-grade education."
* "If they have past work experience in this employment area."
* "As long as they are good workers."
* "The application is for entry-level positions, but they still need to have work ethic, a desire to work, publicspeaking ability, hygiene and customer interaction skills, and a great attitude."
Employers willing to hire people with occupational diplomas stated that they would hire them to do repetitive work, to do work that does not require much thought, to do inventory, to put stickers on items, and as delivery drivers. Of the 20 employers who would hire those with occupational diplomas, 7 stated that the occupational diploma would need to be related to the job opening (i.e., an occupational diploma in secretarial work when applying for a job as a receptionist in a business).
Employers who were unwilling to hire those with occupational diplomas made such statements as the following:
* "We don't have any menial labor jobs to offer these people."
* "It would be too much risk for my business in hiring them."
* "They would most likely have limited skills; therefore I couldn't hire them."
One of the employers who was unsure of hiring those with an occupational diploma stated, "They would need to pass our initial assessments to hire them." It appears that the employers interviewed did not have a clear understanding of the occupational diploma.
Certificates of completion, attendance, or achievement. This group of exit documents was defined as "a diploma offered to students who have met the requirements of their special education program but not the requirements of the school's regular education program."
As indicated in Table 4, of the 25 employers interviewed, 14 were willing to hire those with certificates, 5 were unwilling, and 6 were unsure of hiring them. Employers from the Production, Transportation, and Materials Moving group were the most willing (4 of 5) to hire individuals with these certifications. Employers from the Management, Professional, and Related Occupations group were the least willing (2 yes; 3 no) to hire individuals with these types of exit documents. Although only 2 of the 5 Natural Resource, Construction and Maintenance employers were willing to hire these individuals, the remaining 3 were unsure.
For those willing to hire employees with certificates of attendance, achievement, or completion, the situations in which they would hire them included the following:
* "Ones in which they were trainable and could communicate."
* "As long as they could read and write at the seventhgrade level or better."
* "They would have to have good references."
* "Their individual characteristics would work in my favor when looking at them for employment."
* "If they had good background information."
* "If they were mature."
* "If they fit the open position."
* "If they are willing to do simple jobs and are willing to do a job we consider to be low on the totem-pole around here."
Employers who were willing to hire those who had earned certificates of attendance, achievement, or completion gave examples of jobs they were willing to offer this group of people. Employers stated that they would offer people with certificates jobs cleaning floors, sinks, and stools; caring for animals; shredding paper; vacuuming cars; housekeeping; doing laundry; washing dishes; bussing tables; preparing food; cutting books; and pulling weeds. It seems clear that when those who have earned a certificate were hired, they would be placed in jobs that require very little academic skill.
Skills and characteristics employers were looking for when hiring those with certificates included the ability to react to situations, people skills, good hygiene, honesty, and good decision-making ability. The skills employers stated they expected prospective employees with certificates to have were consistent with the skills employers expected people with occupational diplomas and GEDs to have. When comparing the jobs with the skills, it seems that employers expected prospective employees with certificates to be unable to learn academic skills.
GED. As seen in Table 5,19 of the 25 employers were willing to hire those with GEDs, 3 employers were unwilling, and 3 were unsure of hiring them. Employers from the Natural Resources, Construction, and Maintenance Occupations cluster (5 of 5) were most willing to hire these students. Those from the Service Occupations (3 of 5) and the Production, Transportation, and Materials Moving Occupations (3 of 5) were least willing.
The employers willing to hire people with GEDs commented as follows:
* "We hire them to do more of the unskilled jobs we offer."
* "If I had someone apply with a GED and a high school diploma, I'd hire the person with the high school diploma, but if I had just one person at one time apply with a GED, I'd hire the person with the GED."
* "A GED is our minimum graduation requirement."
* "The job needs to fit the person and person needs to fit the job." (stated by 6 employers)
* "I am not concerned with a person having a GED when considering them for employment." (stated by 4 employers)
* "It shows that even after quitting school, they still went back to get some sort of degree." (stated by 3 employers)
Employers expected prospective employees to have communication, hygiene, social, and grooming skills. Employers also expected employees with GEDs to be willing to work and have good attitudes, a good work ethic, and some sort of a work history.
The employers who were less willing to hire people with GEDs stated the following:
* "If I had a person with a GED and a person with a regular high school diploma apply for a job here and they both had the same skills, I'd still hire the person with the regular high school diploma."
* "I wouldn't hire them because they wouldn't be specialized in what we need."
* "If I had a large field to choose from, I wouldn't hire the person with the GED."
For the employers unsure of hiring those with GEDs, the final decision would have to come down to the individual and his or her individual circumstances. They stated the following:
* "A person with a GED tells me one of two things: They either quit school for no apparent reason or they quit school due to unfortunate circumstances and had the will to go back and get a GED. Therefore I would have to look at the person's individual qualities."
* "I'd need to get background information before I consider hiring them."
* "They typically haven't been good workers in the past, therefore I would need to interview them to get some information on them."
Summary across diploma options. Although employers initially stated that they had little interest in the specific type of exit document earned, they did indicate different views of the acceptability of the specific diploma types (see Table 6). As a group, employers were most willing to hire individuals with an occupational diploma (20 of 25) or GED (19 of 25), compared to those with a certificate of completion, attendance, or achievement (14 of 25).
The exit document options were viewed differently across the occupational groups. The GED and occupational diploma options were the clear favorites (4 of 5 employers) for the Management, Professional, and Related Occupations group, with only 2 employers indicating willingness to hire those with certifications of completion, attendance, or achievement. This group was the most definite in their feelings toward all exit document options, with no "not sure" responses stated.
The Service group was equally willing (3 of 5 employers) to hire all three diploma types but were more against the occupational diploma than the other two options. The Sales and Office group indicated the highest support of all of the groups (5 of 5 employers) for the occupational diploma, followed by willingness and uncertainty for the other options.
The Natural Resource, Construction, and Maintenance group showed the highest support of all of the groups for the GED (5 of 5 employers), followed closely by support for the occupational diploma (4 of 5). The Production, Transportation, and Materials Moving group was equally supportive of the occupational diploma (4 of 5 employers) and certificate of completion, attendance, or achievement (4 of 5); with the GED close behind (3 of 5).
Conclusions and Recommendations
First, the 25 employers interviewed, although randomly selected across occupational groups, are a small sample of the 979 employers in the COC group. This random selection should have resulted in these employers being representative of the total COC group, but we have no guarantee that this is true. A visual inspection did, however, support their representativeness in terms of type of business. Second, the responses of the employers may have been influenced by their knowledge of the requirements of the ADA or the positive and negative experiences they had encountered with persons with disabilities. These factors were not within the scope of this study to investigate. Third, the responses of employers from larger or smaller cities and areas of the country may differ from the group interviewed in this study.
Even with these limitations, several conclusions can be made regarding employers' willingness to hire young adults with disabilities for entry-level jobs.
1. Employers were willing to look at a prospective employee's individual characteristics and not the type of diploma he or she held when considering him or her for employment. This is an encouraging finding.
2. With regard to diplomas other than the standard high school diploma, employers as a whole were most willing to hire those with the occupational diploma, followed closely by the GED. The employers willing to hire people with occupational diplomas expected the diploma to somehow tie into the job for which the person was applying.
3. Employers seemed more willing to hire a person with an occupational diploma than a GED. They tended to stereotype a person with a GED, indicating that they would hire him or her for an unskilled labor position. Some employers, however, were willing to listen to prospective employees during the interview to find out why they had received a GED and assess whether they were willing to hire them with all things considered.
4. The employ ability of people who have earned certificates of completion, attendance, or achievement is much lower than for those with an occupational diploma or a GED. Employers also indicated that they would assign individuals with these certificates more menial jobs.
There are a number of recommendations that can be made from the findings of this study. These recommendations must be couched, however, within the limitations stated in the previous section. First, educators should continue to emphasize the importance of work habits and attitudes and community-based work experiences. Employers consistently indicated a willingness to give strong consideration to these factors in the employment process, even over the type of diploma.
Second, it would be wise for educators to direct their students with disabilities to earn either a standard high school diploma or an occupational diploma, if the latter option exists. In the case of the occupational diploma, the later stages of transition planning for individual students should be aimed toward teaching students focused skills in any one occupational area. Difficulty may occur, however, in trying to have a young secondary-level student choose a specific occupational skill area. A fine balance must be taken in teaching a student to be proficient in one occupational area and providing him or her with broad vocational options after high school. As mandated by IDEA 2004, an ongoing assessment process that involves the student and his or her family is critical in matching the individual's strengths, needs, preferences, and interests with the demands of specific occupational areas. A variety of work experiences is a key component of this assessment process (Sitlington & Clark, 2006; Sitlington, Neubert, Begun, Lombard, & Leconte, 2007).
Third, care should be exercised in awarding students with disabilities a certificate of completion, attendance, or achievement. Along with being the diploma option least favored by the employers interviewed, this option was also associated with menial jobs requiring menial skills.
Fourth, employers should be involved in any discussions regarding the diplomas options made available at the state and local level. Of the 46 states that responded to Johnson and Thurlow's (2003) survey, only 7 states had involved the business community in such discussions.
Finally, this study should be replicated using a larger randomly selected sample. Although few differences surfaced across the occupational categories, it is recommended that employers be sampled by occupational categories and that the results be analyzed by these categories.
This study provided insight into the attitudes employers have toward the types of diplomas in existence or emerging. The initiative to involve students with disabilities in statewide and districtwide assessments will continue. A critical component of transition planning for the student will be the negotiation of the type of diploma that will be awarded. This decision should be made with direct input from the student and the student's family as a part of the transition assessment and planning process.
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Patricia L. Sitlington
University of Northern Iowa
Authors' Note: Ryan Hartwig is now serving with the United States Army. The authors wish to express their gratitude to Erin Payne for her assistance in assigning the employers to occupational groups and to Heather Trilk and Crystal Stokes for their assistance in editing the manuscript for publication. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Patricia L. Sitlington, Department of Special Education, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0601; e-mail: [email protected]
Ryan Hartwig, MEd, earned his master's degree in special education from the University of Northern Iowa with an emphasis in career and vocational programming and transition.
Patricia L. Sitlington, PhD, is a professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research interests include transition assessment and outcome studies of youth with and without disabilities.
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