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Graduation rates for disabled students stagnate

Graduates with disabilities more likely to attend college or job-training
Disabled students are in every group, including this graduating class. The national graduation rate hit a historic high of 82 percent in 2014; however, students with disabilities graduated at a rate of 63 percent. (Photo: Communities In Schools)
Disabled students are in every group, including this graduating class. The national graduation rate hit a historic high of 82 percent in 2014; however, students with disabilities graduated at a rate of 63 percent. (Photo: Communities In Schools)

While national graduation rates hit an all-time high of 82 percent in 2014, the trend for students with disabilities remained flat at nearly 63 percent, according to the most recent data. In Georgia, Nevada and Mississippi, students with disabilities graduated from high school at half the rate of their non-disabled peers.

Students with disabilities who earn a diploma are more likely than disabled dropouts to spend their early adult years in higher education or training for a job, according to the National Longitudinal Transition Study. Graduating high school also makes these students three times less likely to get in trouble with the law.

About 13 percent of all public school students—6.4 million—received special ed services in 2012-13, according to the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Graduate rates for these students has hovered around 60 percent for the past several years.

And special education advocates say that between 85 and 90 percent of special ed students should be able to graduate on time, if given the right supports.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to prepare them to graduate rather than have them drop out, age out or leave with a certificate of attendance,” says Laura Schifter, an adjunct lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-author of the book How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard. “These students are capable of going to college, and doing really well,” she adds, “but we’re still not getting enough of them there.”

The case for inclusion

Students with disabilities who participate in general ed classes graduate at much higher rates than do students placed primarily in separate classrooms—even when controlling for factors such as disability category and family income, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Exceptional Children.

Some states permit districts to offer an alternate special ed diploma, which allows students to graduate without completing a traditional college prep curriculum under a regular diploma. But it may lower the bar for students with disabilities who may be able to achieve with modifications, says Jennifer DePaoli, senior education advisor at public policy firm Civic Enterprises. The special ed diploma track is determined in IEP meetings. Research shows it may put students at a disadvantage when applying to colleges and jobs, DePaoli says.

Students with disabilities graduate at higher rates in states where they are encouraged to pursue a regular diploma that requires the same college prep work assigned to other students, studies show.

Administrators should encourage IEP teams to hold high standards for special needs students, and expect that many can do the work with help from special ed teachers or paraprofessionals, DePaoli says. School leaders should also ensure parents and teachers know the long-term consequences of decisions they make for students. “District administrators should make sure students have supports to meet those expectations,” DePaoli says.

For more information on graduation rates, visit the America's Promise Alliance 2016 "Building A Grad Nation" report. 

Bolster grad rates for students with disabilities

Districts can increase success for students with special needs by doing the following:

  • Examine graduation data to see where gaps exist.
  • Reexamine discipline practices, and replace suspensions and expulsions with practices that keep students in school.
  • Provide IEP teams information on the long-term impact of special education diplomas versus traditional diplomas, in terms of later employment and postsecondary enrollment rates.
  • Consider adopting schoolwide, evidence-based methods that improve outcomes for all students, such as Universal Design for Learning, Multi-tiered System of Supports, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.
  • Sources: Jennifer DePaoli, senior education advisor at public policy firm Civic Enterprises, and Laura Schifter, adjunct lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education