Graduation Requirements for Pennsylvania Students with IEPs


Beginning in 2019, most high school students in Pennsylvania will be required to take and pass Keystone exams in Algebra 1, Biology, and Literature, in order to graduate. Students who receive special education services are not usually exempt from these tests.

Each student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team will determine whether the student:

  • Takes Keystone Exams without accommodations; or
  • Takes Keystone Exams with accommodations; or
  • Takes the Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessment (PASA) instead of Keystone exams.

Only students with “the most significant cognitive disabilities” are allowed to take an alternative assessment, according to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Under ESSA, school districts can permit up to one percent of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities to take an alternative assessment. Districts may apply for a waiver to exceed this cap.

Some students with IEPs may have modified curriculums and may not take coursework in Algebra 1, Biology, and/or Literature during high school. Even though these students have not taken the class, they are required to take the Keystone exam for each subject no later than Spring of 11th grade, unless they have a religious exemption or are determined by the IEP team as having a “most significant cognitive disability.” The student is not allowed to complete a Project Based Assessment instead of taking the Keystone exams, but a student with an IEP does not have to take a Keystone exam more than once before beginning the project.

It is unclear whether students who fail a Keystone exam may show proficiency through a Project Based Assessment even though they have not taken the course. Pennsylvania regulations state that Project Based Assessments are available only to students who have taken the class being tested (Algebra 1, Biology, or Literature). In practice, many districts do allow students to demonstrate proficiency through a Project Based Assessment if they have failed an exam, regardless of if the students have taken the subject.

Accommodations and Modifications

Specific accommodations can be provided to students with disabilities when taking Keystone exams so long as the accommodations selected do not invalidate the state assessment. The accommodations must be documented in the student’s IEP or 504 Plan and should mirror accommodations already being provided to the student for instruction and curriculum-based assessments.

Accommodations for instruction and assessment are commonly categorized in these ways:

  • Presentation Accommodations, which allow students to access information in alternate ways. These alternate modes of access are auditory, multi-sensory, tactile, and visual.
  • Response Accommodations, which allow students to complete assessments in different ways (such as by using a scribe or writing responses in a test booklet) or to solve or organize problems using some type of assistive device (for example, manipulatives) or organizer.
  • Setting Accommodations, which change the location in which a test or assignment is given or the conditions of the assessment setting (such as allowing a cueing system for on task behavior).
  • Timing/Scheduling Accommodations, which change the way time is organized or provide breaks.

Modifications are not allowed for Keystone exams. Modifications refer to practices that change, lower, or reduce learning expectations, such as changing the content that is tested.

Students Who Defer Graduation

Students who receive special education services are entitled to continue with secondary education (high school) until the end of the school year in which they reach age 21. These students may have three or even four extra years of schooling. Many parents and school districts wonder how deferring graduation impacts the need to pass Keystone exams for students who have completed four years of high school prior to 2019.

The state regulations are silent on this issue. Some Pennsylvania school districts use the date the student would have graduated with same age peers (that is, the year the student completes four years of high school) to determine if the student must reach a proficient level in order to graduate. For example, a student who completes four years of high school in 2018 but who defers graduation until 2021 when he turns age 21 would not be required to score a proficient level on Keystones in district that follow this interpretation. IEP teams should consult with their school boards to determine the district’s policies regarding Keystone proficiency for student who defer graduation until 2019 and beyond. (This issue is only relevant for students who complete four years of high school in 2017 or 2018.)

Concluding Thoughts

The IEP team should begin discussing these options as part of the student’s transition planning. Transition planning should begin during the IEP year the student turns 14 (if not before). Overall, a student’s participation in Keystone exams and graduation requirements generally should align with the student’s transition plan to post high school opportunities.

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Last Updated: June 9, 2020

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