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How to Use Differentiated Learning to Help Students Graduate

How to Use Differentiated Learning to Help Students Graduate

Stay calm and help your students graduate with differentiated learning.

High school graduation is an exciting time, but for students who have fallen behind in credits or who are failing required classes, it can be stressful instead.

Students who are significantly behind or facing major life challenges may qualify for alternative education. But what about those who don't? Are there ways teachers can help these students earn their high school diploma on time?

If you have struggling students nearing graduation, it may be time to pull out some emergency interventions. Differentiated learning may be the key to helping your students cross the finish line.

What Are the Options?

More than 1.2 million U.S. students drop out of high school every year. That's one student every 26 seconds.


To help students stay in school and reach graduation, many states have created alternative education programs. These programs are designed for at-risk students who meet certain state-specific qualifications, including pregnancy, chronic truancy, homelessness, mental health issues, expulsion, or being significantly behind in coursework.

While these programs are beneficial for many, students who don't qualify or don't want to leave their high school may need differentiated options to meet graduation requirements.

Know What's Required

Graduation requirements vary from state to state. Some states require students to pass a graduation or basic skills exam and won't waive this requirement for anyone. Other states no longer require students to pass a test, but they do have certain required standards that all students must meet.

Anna Southard, a New York City teacher, works with graduating seniors, many of whom are Title 1, ELL, or special education students.

Further reading: Teacher helps student become first high school graduate in his family. 

"In New York City, we follow chancellor regulations very closely, but there is a lot of room for autonomy," Southard said. "If a student is capable of showing mastery of the content that is aligned to the Common Core standards and can complete all the work that the teacher feels fit for that requirement, then they can get the credit."

She then explained that while New York City wants its teachers to help students meet all requirements and standards, at the end of the day, students also need to pass state exams, and there is no differentiating those.

Using Differentiated Learning

Differentiated learning doesn't eliminate or excuse students from any graduation requirements, but it may offer flexibility and the chance to expedite how students achieve some requirements.

For example, most high schools require that students earn a credit in biology or life sciences. One of Minnesota's high school biology standards requires students to understand that "cells and cell structures have specific functions that allow an organism to grow, survive, and reproduce."

Teachers are required to teach this standard and ensure students demonstrate proficiency in the concept, but this is where differentiation comes in.

To demonstrate knowledge of specific cell structures and functions, teachers could offer students the opportunity to create a model, draw a picture, give an oral explanation, or write a paragraph. Some students may meet the standard by spending a week creating an elaborate project, while others might meet the same standard in one class period by giving an oral presentation.

Standards are typically quite vague, which allows for flexibility. However, individual districts and schools ultimately decide how students can demonstrate proficiency, so it is wise to consult with your administration if you're proposing alternatives that differ from your approved curriculum.

Freedom and Flexibility

Schools that don't have seat time requirements may allow students independent study options. Independent study allows students the freedom and flexibility of completing class requirements on their own.

Dr. Kathie Nunley, educational psychologist and author of Differentiating the High School Classroom, advises teachers to define their learning objectives and then offer assignment choices for each one. Offering choices allows students to complete requirements more quickly and on their own time, which is particularly helpful for students juggling additional responsibilities such as a job or family.

Further reading: 5 Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Happier Teacher

Different Doesn't Mean Easier

While some may argue differentiated learning is unfair and can lead to conflicts between students, Anna Southard has not found this to be the case.

"Particularly in the case of graduating seniors, there isn't a lot of pushback from peers," Southard said. "Different doesn't mean easier and it shouldn't be a lower standard. Some students need more time and need more scaffolds."

Motivation Is Key

There are many reasons students may fall behind in school, but catching up in time for graduation doesn't always mean transferring to an alternative school or missing out on a diploma.

When it comes to graduation crunch time, motivated students, creative teaching, and differentiated learning opportunities, can play a critical role in helping students demonstrate proficiency, meet class requirements, and ultimately receive their high school diploma.