The Special Education Graduation Gap

Lost in all of the discussion about these new graduation numbers is recognition that graduation rates for students with disabilities remain abysmal.
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Last month, U.S. newspapers reported a rare piece of good news about the state of American education. Continuing a trend that's been ticking upwards for years, more than four out of five students in the class of 2014 graduated high school on-time -- the highest U.S. graduation rate on record. President Obama noted these numbers in his recent State of the Union address, claiming that the country has "lifted the high school graduation rate to new highs." Though some dispute the validity of these numbers and there is an argument to be made that the value of a high school diploma may be lower than it once was (either as a ticket to a middle-class wage or a signal that a student is ready to succeed in college), it's pretty clear that having a high school diploma is a lot better than not having one.

Lost in all of the discussion about these new graduation numbers is recognition that graduation rates for students with disabilities remain abysmal.

Across the United States, 63 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school in 2014 -- a rate of graduation roughly 20 percent lower than the national average. In Georgia, Nevada and Mississippi, students with disabilities graduated from high school at half the rate of their non-disabled peers. In 20 states, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is lower than 60 percent -- the threshold commonly used to identify schools as "dropout factories."

Rates of high school graduation for students with disabilities 2013-2014


This is alarming as high school graduation represents a particularly important milestone for students with disabilities. Evidence from the National Longitudinal Transition Study indicates that students with disabilities who graduated from high school were more likely than dropouts to spend their early adult years engaged in school, work, or preparation for work. Even more importantly, students with disabilities who complete high school were nearly three times less likely than non-completers to get in trouble with the law in early adulthood.

For students without disabilities, the current high rates of graduation are likely attributable, at least in part, to an increased national focus on helping students complete high school. This has included coordinated national efforts to consistently measure and track rates of graduation, to intervene with students at risk for dropping out and to provide supports for schools that graduate fewer than 60 percent of students.

The good news is that we are learning a lot more about how to help students with disabilities graduate high school. For instance, there is increasing evidence that maintaining high expectations for students with disabilities and providing them with opportunities to take classes alongside their typically developing peers is associated with higher rates of graduation for students with disabilities. A peer-reviewed study released last month found that, across all disability categories, students who are included in classes with their non-disabled peers for most of the day have substantially higher on-time graduation rates when compared to students in substantially separate placements, even when controlling for individual and community factors including disability category and family income status.

Students with disabilities graduate at higher rates in those states where they are encouraged to pursue a regular diploma that has the same requirements for students with and without disabilities. In fact, graduation rates for students with disabilities are lower when states offer more alternate, special education diplomas. These diplomas allow students with disabilities to graduate even when they do not meet general education requirements.

Graduation rates for students with disabilities have improved slightly in recent years. Some have attributed this small but steady increase to the fact that schools and school districts have been, at least in theory, accountable for the outcomes of students with disabilities. However, to continue and accelerate this improvement, states must make the success of students with disabilities a top priority as they develop their plans to implement the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act. This should involve increased efforts to support more students with disabilities in general education settings, the maintenance of high expectations for students and clear mechanisms to hold district and school leaders accountable for the performance and graduation of students with disabilities.

These steps, though important, will likely not be sufficient to close the graduation gap between students with disabilities and their typically developing peers. Doing so will require new ideas and approaches for both general and special education teachers. We need to continue and expand investments in proven strategies such as multi-tiered systems of support and Universal Design for Learning, while dedicating new resources towards testing promising ideas such as the i3-funded Everyday Arts for Special Education and Unconditional Education programs. Most importantly, we need an unflinching commitment -- from the president to school administrators to classroom teachers -- to do everything necessary to help students with disabilities to thrive and graduate from high school.

Todd Grindal, Ed.D is a researcher with Abt Associates Inc, where he studies how public policies impact young children and children with disabilities. @Grindato

Laura A. Schifter, Ed.D is an Adjunct Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and recently co-authored How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard. @laschifter12

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