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Improving Graduation Rates for Special Education Students

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act was signed November 29, 1975, creating new criteria and mandates for the fair and equitable education of students with special needs. Although the landscape of public education has changed significantly since the signing of the bill, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities are still at risk of graduating later than their peers, of graduating with a transcript that does not fairly reflect their true abilities, or of not graduating at all.

Graduation Rates for Students With Special Needs Are Improving

The U.S. Department of Education reported that, in 1970, schools in the United Stated educated only one in five children with disabilities. Some states even passed laws excluding children with certain disabilities, including those who were deaf, blind, emotionally disabled or cognitively impaired.

With the passage of IDEA in 1975, students with disabilities of any kind were given the guarantee of a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Ever-increasing graduation numbers reveal the success of the goals set forth by this mandate.

In the 2015-2016 school year, 65 percent of students with disabilities received diplomas, an increase of almost one percent from the year before, continuing the five-year trend. This number, however, falls far short of the 84 percent of all high school students who graduate.

What Are Educators Doing Right?

Prior to 1975, schools assumed the authority to decide which students would come to school each day. With the enactment of IDEA principles, schools were mandated to provide a fair and equal education to all students, regardless of disability, and the government was required to make sure funding was available to meet their needs.

In addition to providing an education and related services to over 6.9 million students in K-12 classrooms, early intervention services are being provided to more than 340,000 children from infancy to preschool. According to the National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center, “High quality early intervention services can change a child’s developmental trajectory and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities.” Providing early services to children with special needs affects all aspects of their educational journey, including whether or not they are able to graduate.

Another reason graduation rates for students with special needs is rising is that schools are recognizing how the stigma of being different affects children. In the past, students who received special services were often relegated to the basement or the small room at the end of the hallway.

As recently as 1998, Ryan Parry, a special education teacher in Covina, California, was appalled when he started his career in a “horrible little classroom in the back of the campus that no one knew existed.” The books provided to him were part of an early-elementary curriculum. His students were often late or absent because they did not want to be seen going to their room.

Nonprofit Eye to Eye president Marcus Soutra explains, “When you have that level of shame and doubt around yourself as a learner, the last thing you want to do is embrace accommodations and supports that are set up to help you.” In 2010, 13 percent of Parry’s students dropped out of school prior to graduation.

As district and building administrators become aware of the impact of environment on all students, including those with disabilities, they are making changes. For example, special education classrooms in Covina High School are centrally located and books are age-appropriate and challenging. Parry says of their approach, “Special ed is not a placement. It’s a service.”

Besides the improved social-emotional piece, schools are also investing in both hardware and software to better equip teachers to provide quality instruction to their students. Up-to-date programs are available to students who need assistance in reading and math skills, but who are able to keep up with concepts and discussions.

In addition, classrooms with one special education and one general education teacher are being designed in which teachers work together or “co-teach,” offering support to special education students without moving to a different room or space. By remaining in a general education classroom for a significant part of the day, students who need minimal support can keep up with their contemporaries without undue attention.

What Needs to Improve?

In some states, less than half of students with disabilities earn a diploma. The list includes Louisiana, Mississippi and Nevada, where less than 50 percent of students with disabilities graduate from high school. In only one state, Arkansas, does the graduation rate for students with disabilities (84.3 percent) come close to the overall graduation rate of the total student population (87 percent).

Many educators believe changes can be made to improve these statistics:

Better preparation for teachers. One of the primary reasons for the lag in graduation numbers, as voiced by teachers, is their own lack of preparation to work with special education students. In an effort to provide students a fair and equal education in the least restrictive environment, more and more students with special needs are being placed in general education classrooms, regardless of their disability or its severity.

Teachers find themselves woefully unprepared for the type or amount of support some students need to succeed. A 2007 study found that most teacher preparation programs provided only one or two classes focusing on inclusion or special education. Little has changed since then.

By including more special education coursework at the teacher preparation level and providing on-the-job training and professional development, teachers would be more efficient and able to meet the needs of all students.

Greater funding. According to the IDEA, the federal government is to furnish 40 percent of the cost required to provide adequate services to students with disabilities. (This equals the funds above the cost of educating a general education student.) In 2015, the federal government provided only 16 percent of the cost. School districts that were already struggling to make ends meet were forced to cut services to all students, including those with special needs.

Higher expectations for students. Although many disabled students are now graduating from high school, they report their education is less than what they expected. Many students who receive special services are “promoted” even though they do not meet the standard expectations for the grade level or course.

Maintaining high standards may not increase the number of students graduating, but it would make graduation a stronger stepping stone to independence and a career with promise and integrity.

Finding solutions to the low rate of graduation among students with disabilities is not an easy task, nor is it inexpensive. But with 13 percent of currently enrolled students receiving special services, it is critical that we continue to pursue solutions and pathways to success. According to The Hechinger Report, “Their disabilities shouldn’t keep them from achieving the same standards as their peers — and experts estimate that up to 90 percent of students with disabilities are capable of graduating high school fully prepared to tackle college or a career if they receive proper support along the way.”

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin-Superior online Master of Science in Education – Special Education program.


U.S. Department of Education: A 25-Year History of the IDEA

The National Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center: The Importance of Early Intervention for Infants and Toddlers With Disabilities and Their Families

The Hechinger Report: How One District Solved Its Special Education Dropout Problem

Disability Scoop: Graduation Rate Improves for Students With Disabilities

Disability Scoop: Diplomas Remain Elusive for Many With Disabilities

National Center for Education Statistics: Public High School 4-Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate

The Atlantic: How Teacher Training Hinders Special-Needs Students

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