Graduation Rates Are Increasing, but Students with Special Education Needs Are Still in Peril

Author: Christine Powell, Ed. D

At face value, the state of American education is on an upswing; 2014 was a landmark year, with the highest graduation rate on record in American high schools. An increase in the number of students that earn a diploma has been a reliable indicator of the preparedness of our youth to pursue college and career opportunities. The upward trend in graduation rates has some scratching their heads about the trustworthiness of these numbers. The argument made, is that the uptick has been realized by a lowering of the standards, making the value of a diploma seemingly less than it once was. But until there is another way to benchmark student achievement, the diploma is the standard, and it is better to have one than not. 

Absent from this conversation is an acknowledgment that graduation numbers for students receiving special education services continue to be appalling, despite alleged cutting of the criteria. Many high schoolers receiving special education services never make it to graduation, as evidenced by graduation data. In 2016, 61 percent of students with disabilities graduated from high school; a glaring 20 percentage points lower than the national average of 82 percent for students without disabilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2013-2014 data indicates that in 20 states, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is lower than the national average by an additional 3 percent, meaning that these students often lack the fundamental skills to move into the workforce. These same students who leave their education early are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, less inclined to go back to school, and less likely to live on their own (Newman et al., 2001). 

The silver lining is that federal initiatives, to include the Civic Marshall Plan, require schools to address the achievement gaps of subgroups to include students with special education needs. The aim is to raise graduation rates to 90 percent, and have students complete at least a full year of postsecondary education or training by the year 2020. With every passing year, schools and educators are learning more about how to help students with disabilities as research continues to explore available evidence and expertise for ways to assist with the systemic challenges in working with diverse populations.

Accordingly, there are recommendations to support students with special education needs. The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) recommends several practices to prevent students from dropping out of school. Included are targeted and schoolwide interventions such as assigning adult advocates to students, providing increased academic support and enrichment, and adopting personalized learning and strength-based teaching schoolwide. Research supports inclusive education practices, finding that across all disability classifications, students with special education needs who were in inclusion settings for the majority of the school day, graduated at a higher rate than students in disability-specific programs. Additionally, a peer reviewed study showed that effective practices to include increased collaboration between special education and general education teachers, access to core curriculum, and targeted professional development for behavior management lead to improved student achievement for students in special education. And perhaps most promising are the positive effects of student engagement in career technical education (CTE) as a remedy to the alternative to dropping out. When students with special education needs successfully participate in a CTE course, they are less likely to drop out, more apt to compete for competitive wages post-graduation, and develop the skills and attributes required for future education and training. 

These recommendations, although significant and revealing, will likely not be enough to substantially close the current 20 percent graduation gap between students with special education needs and their peers in general education. Keeping students engaged and in school requires acting on the above research-based recommendations, as well as continued investment in creating an eco-system of support. Most importantly, there needs to be transparency in graduation rates, and a targeted pledge to close the gap and ensure all students graduate ready for what lies ahead. 

Published by drpowellpurposefuleducation

I am a special educator, researcher, and education advocate helping parents and students make purposeful educational decisions. This page is a way of sharing my insights, experiences, and expertise on special education issues and best practices, along with highlighting my Fulbright Distinguished Teacher experience in Singapore this coming year. Fulbright Disclaimer- The views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.

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