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Are Students with Disabilities Being Left Behind?

Graduation rates for students with disabilities lag due to chronic misperceptions, inconsistent academic policies and lack of supports

The graduation rate for students with disabilities hit 61.9 percent in 2012-13, a rate nearly 20 percentage points lower than the general student population (81.4 percent), according to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report. The students’ unique set of challenges paired with nationally inconsistent school policies contribute to the disparities keeping special education students from reaching their full potential.

Improving graduation rates for students with disabilities will have a tremendous impact on the overall student graduation rate, as the report indicates that students with disabilities, specifically those receiving education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), make up approximately 13 percent of all public school students nationwide.

Individual states vary greatly in the graduation rate gap between students with disabilities and students in the general population, with gaps ranging from 3.3 percentage points to 58.8 points, according to the report.

The wide range results from the states’ ability to set their own definitions and create a variety of graduation pathways for students with disabilities. For example, the report notes that even though Arkansas recorded the highest special education graduation rate in 2012-2013, their graduation requirements included an incredible amount of flexibility and ambiguity for students with disabilities. Therefore, in some cases special education students are forced to take easier routes to graduation that may not adequately challenge them or benefit their learning.

“That’s a major civil rights violation that a lot of people are not aware of,” said Jennifer DePaoli, senior education adviser with Civic Enterprises, in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article on Georgia’s special education graduation rates, which is the third worst in the country. “These are the students who need the most and these are the programs that are least likely to provide the support they need.”

However, students with disabilities have proven that this leeway is not necessary, much less beneficial for their development.

A recent op-ed by Grad Nation report co-authors Bob Balfanz and John Bridgeland noted: “If you are a student with a disability in America, your chances of graduating high school nationally are six in 10, when the evidence is clear that nine in 10 have the capabilities to earn a regular diploma.”

The right supports could also help to dismantle some of the disproportionate disciplinary issues that students with disabilities face. According to the report, students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as students without disabilities. Under IDEA, schools are required to ensure special education students are not being punished due to behavior caused by their disability. Given the unequal findings of the report, many schools may not be meeting this obligation.

Some of the recommendations in the Building a Grad Nation report that may help students with disabilities stay on track to graduation include: 1) ensuring consistency and comparability in graduation rate data for students with disabilities at the federal and state level, 2) limiting exit options that prematurely put students with disabilities off track to graduating with a standard diploma, 3) addressing chronic misperceptions, and 4) fixing enrollment and discipline disproportionality issues.

GradNation Numbers At a Glance:

  • Students with disabilities, specifically those receiving special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), make up approximately 13 percent of all public school students nationwide.
     
  • In 2013, the national average graduation rate for students with disabilities hit 61.9 percent – nearly 20 points lower than the average graduation rate for all students.
     
  • It is estimated that 85 to 90 percent of special education students can meet regular diploma requirements with the right supports.
     
  • Of the students served under IDEA, nearly three-quarters were identified with a specific learning disability (40.4 percent), a speech or language impairment (18.3 percent) or other health impairments (14.2 percent).
     
  • Together, students with autism (8.4 percent), intellectual disabilities (7.3 percent), and emotional disturbances (6.2 percent) comprise just over one-fifth of students served under IDEA.
     
  • Students with multiple disabilities, hearing impairments, orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, traumatic brain injuries and deaf-blindness each make up 2 percent or less of those served under IDEA.
     
  • The graduation rate for students with disabilities varies across states by nearly 58 percentage points, ranging from a high of 80.4 percent in Arkansas to a low of 22.5 percent in Mississippi.
     
  • While students with disabilities make up just 13 percent of the student population, they comprise 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and 75 percent of those physically restrained at school.
     
  • Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as students without disabilities.

 

NOTE: This article is part of a web series on the “Five Drivers” from the 2015 Building a Grad Nation report co-authored by Civic Enterprise and Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University School of Education in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education. To read the full report, visit www.gradnation.org/gradreport. To get state-by-state data of each state’s progress in addressing the dropout challenge, visit The Civic Marshall Plan State Indices at http://new.every1graduates.org/building-a-grad-nation-2014-2015-update/.