Autism Alliance calls for higher education standards

By: Kathryn Pentiuk | Southfield Sun | Published June 22, 2023

SOUTHFIELD — The Autism Alliance of Michigan is calling the Michigan Department of Education to a higher standard as it pertains to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act cap on the percentage of students with disabilities allowed to take the state’s alternate assessment, the MI-Access test.

In 2017, the Every Student Succeeds Act limited the percentage of students eligible to take MI-Access to 1% of the total students tested. This percentage was implemented to ensure that only the students with the most significant cognitive disabilities were assigned the alternative test. However, according to the Autism Alliance of Michigan, Michigan has continued to exceed this limit yearly, nearly doubling the cap, which requires the state to obtain a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. While Michigan has lowered this rate by 6,000 students between 2017 and 2022, if Michigan continues at this pace, then it will take at least eight years to meet the ESSA-imposed limit.

The Autism Alliance of Michigan is a nonprofit organization that says it is dedicated to helping people with autism lead full lives and meet their greatest potential. They help individuals with autism through every lifespan with their three core pillars — the statewide MiNavigator, which is a tool that connects individuals, parents, caregivers and anyone with questions relating to autism with professional consultations to help find the answers and resources they’re looking for; the education pillar, which aims to tackle issues such as Michigan’s noncompliance to the ESSA cap and other initiatives to help hold students with autism or other disabilities to a higher academic standard through educational opportunities; and the employment pillar, which helps individuals with autism with career services through the Upbound Staffing program, which connects the individual with potential employers, coaches them through the interviewing process, aids them in their resume creation, and continues to check in on them after they’ve settled into their new job.

The Autism Alliance said Michigan’s use of Mi-Access is excessive.

Heather Eckner, the director of statewide education for the Autism Alliance of Michigan, said that the most recent graduation data issued from the MDE showed alarming rates. In the 2021-22 school year, students without disabilities in Michigan graduated with a four-year high school diploma at the rate of 84%. For students with disabilities in Michigan with a special education plan or an individualized education program, the graduation rate for that same year was 58%.

Eckner said that even though Michigan has lowered the number of students taking the MI-Access instead of standard testing by 6,000 between 2017-2022, this still remains an issue because of the low graduation rates for students with disabilities.

“Whether you have a connection to disability or not, you understand that … most parents’ expectations for their children is that they will go through the public education school system,” Eckner said. “The idea is that you exit with a high school diploma, because what does that lead to? It leads to other educational opportunities that lead to employment opportunities. It leads to living the most independent life that you can. So when we are not fulfilling the educational opportunities and outcomes for students with disabilities, you can see how all of those other things are negatively impacted.”

William DiSessa, a spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Education, said that the ESSA language assures that parents are informed about the standards to which their child’s academic achievement will be measured and how participation in an alternate assessment may impact the student’s completion requirements for a regular high school diploma.

DiSessa also said that final authority is given to the IEP team regarding decisions around which assessment is given to a student and that the IEP team must follow the state guidelines for participation in the alternate assessment. Michigan requires any district that exceeds the 1% cap to complete a justification form that includes several components. One is to develop a local plan to ensure IEP teams understand the criteria for which the alternate assessment should be selected. However, the state does not track or archive the factors districts give in the justification form as to why they exceeded the cap.

“Michigan has consistently decreased the rate of students with disabilities participating in the alternate assessment since spring 2017. Michigan’s percentage fell from 2.4% of students with disabilities participating in the alternate assessment that year to the most recent data available, in 2019, 2.1% of students with disabilities in ELA and 2% of students with disabilities in math,” DiSessa stated.

Sheri Stuart, the director of Oakland Schools Communication Services, explained that within Oakland County schools, since the inception of the federal mandate, county-level data reveals a downward trend, from 1.9% in 2017 down to 1.5% in 2022.

Jennifer Schaefer is the account manager for the Autism Alliance’s employment pillar, Upbound Staffing, and she works to develop relationships with employers interested in how they can accommodate employees with disabilities.

“My challenge is to find someone at employer partners that is a champion for Upbound and believes in (diversity, equity and inclusion) and believes that having people with disabilities on their team really makes their team better,” Schaefer said. She said that many people may want to hire someone with a disability to meet DEI credentials within a company, but hiring one person with autism to check a box as an act of charity isn’t what Upbound is about.

Upbound seeks to add value to the workplace through qualified employees who are on the spectrum. They include training for their employer partners that help them further their understanding of autism. Instead of focusing on the disadvantages of disability, Upbound emphasizes the strengths and intelligence of individuals with autism.

In the two years that Upbound has existed, they’ve now partnered with 25 employers in fields such as finance, manufacturing and sterilizing medical equipment, and legal work. Upbound has placed 65 individuals in careers but has worked with over 500 people to assist them with career coaching, training and application aid. Upbound works with people with all levels of education and of all ages.

Sam Medley, 24, is one of the 65 individuals to work with Upbound to find a job. Medley said that Upbound helped him get out of a funk he was in when it came to finding a job. About a year ago, Upbound helped place Medley in a law office’s mail room.

“They helped me feel comfortable here by helping me to introduce myself to all the employees and my coworkers in my department, which I really liked — having a familiar face that I can rely on to help me calm down and feel OK in the moment.”

He said that Upbound also assisted him in getting settled into the job by helping him stay on track, teaching him to take notes and keeping him encouraged through their frequent check-ins to see how he was adjusting to his new position.

“People want to help people with disabilities,” Medley stated. “That’s what I’ve really learned. I’m not alone. Because we’re autistic, that doesn’t mean we can’t do the same things that everyone else does. I don’t want to be treated like a child; just treat me like an adult. We can do the same things. We just have to do it at our pace.”

For more information on the Autism Alliance of Michigan, visit

For more information on MI-Access, visit