Diplomas Count 2015: Life After Special Education

It wasn’t that long ago when you could go from one end of your K–12 education to the other without even laying eyes a student with a disability. “In the early 1970s, these youths were marginalized both in school and in life, with only one-fifth of children with disabilities even enrolled in public schools,” notes Education Week, whose tenth annual Diplomas Count report focuses this year on students with disabilities. Today, nearly six million such students are enrolled in U.S. public schools, with the vast majority studying alongside non-disabled peers. They are “coming of age at a time when they, like all high school students, are increasingly expected to perform to high academic standards and to prepare for further education or training and a productive role in the workplace,” the authors observe.

How are they doing? Eighty-one percent of our public high schools students can now expect to march across stage and be handed a diploma within four years; that’s both a historic high and the headline finding of Diplomas Count 2015. However, the graduation rate among students with disabilities is 62 percent—a figure that masks wild (and somewhat suspicious) variations from state to state: from a low of 23 percent in Mississippi to a high of 80 percent in nearby Arkansas. Education Week is particularly strong in unpacking those disparities, which can be heavily influenced by both discipline practices that “disproportionately affect special education students” and variations in state graduation requirements, some of which “may be less rigorous for students with disabilities than for their peers.”

The theme that emerges is the need for early and comprehensive transition planning to prepare special education students to go it alone, without the resources and supports they receive during their school years. Profiles of young adults with a range of disabilities (a lab school student now successfully attending culinary arts school; twin brothers who graduated high school with modified diplomas and found jobs but “could have benefitted from more career direction in high school”) go a long way toward making the package more affecting than a typical data-fest. The key to preparing students like these for launch is setting “ambitious but realistic goals for students with disabilities, and helping them navigate the often-unfamiliar terrain of the post-high school world.”

To be sure, Diplomas Count offers data by the dump truck load. A nifty interactive map allows users to make instant comparisons of state graduation rates, sortable for students with limited English proficiency, socioeconomic disadvantage, race, and other subgroups. Some of the more interesting nuggets: Nationally, graduation rates for disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups remain substantially below those of their white and Asian peers; graduation rates are lower for students with disabilities in every state; and the largest gap between disabled students and the at-large graduation rate is 53 percent, in Mississippi (Alabama’s 3 percent gap is the smallest).

The outlook for students with disabilities after graduation, the report concludes, isn’t negative—just mixed.

SOURCE: Diplomas Count 2015: Next Steps: Life After Special Education,” Education Week (June 2015).

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.