Advanced placement and disabled students: U.S. Department of Education guidance

In a December 26, 2007 "Dear Colleague" letter, the U.S. Department of Education addressed "an issue involving students with disabilities seeking enrollment in challenging academic programs, such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes or programs (accelerated programs)."  The letter would be applicable to any covered entity.

Apparently, some schools refuse to allow qualified disabled students the right to participate in such programs or require the student’s to forego some other right. These actions, said the Department, "are inconsistent with Federal law, and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education will continue to act promptly to remedy such violations where they occur."

OCR notes that "[i]t is unlawful to deny a student with a disability admission to an accelerated class or program solely because of that student’s need for special education or related aids and services, or because that student has an IEP or a plan under Section 504." (Footnote omitted.)

[I]f a qualified student with a disability requires related aids and services to participate in a regular education class or program, then a school cannot deny that student the needed related aids and services in an accelerated class or program.  For example, if a student’s IEP or plan under Section 504 provides for Braille materials in order to participate in the regular education program and she enrolls in an accelerated or advanced history class, then she also must receive Braille materials for that class.  The same would be true for other needed related aids and services such as extended time on tests or the use of a computer to take notes.

Schools are not, however, required to admit a student who happens to have a disability to advanced courses if the student is not otherwise qualified for the program. But the qualification requirements must be proper and not, among other things, tend to disqualify a student because of a disability. The example above of a visually impaired student is illustrative: being able to visually read text would probably not be a proper qualification. Having certain background or prerequisite knowledge probably would be proper.

Although OCR’s jurisdiction falls under Section 504 and the Americans With Disabilities Act, the letter notes that the advice is issued after consulting with the Office of Special Education Programs, which oversees the IDEA. OCR offers technical assistance to schools interesting in improving their programs. The guidance contains contact information.

 As with all things involving disabilities and education, each decision must be individualized. And ultimately, the rationale behind any decision must be clearly articulable, proper, and objective in order to be convincingly proper and defensible.