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7 of 10 Handicapped Graduates Found 'Productive'

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Nearly 70 percent of handicapped youths were engaged in a "productive activity" such as working, studying, or raising children one year after leaving school, according to the first national study to look at how students fare after special education.

Researchers said it was too soon to tell whether the findings reflect on the effectiveness of special education. The data, they said, represent "a mixed bag, with both good news and bad news" for special educators.

"Whether the glass seems half full or half empty depends largely on the expectations we hold for these youths," said Mary Wagner, who directed the study by the California research firm sri International.

"For many categories of disability, the fact that even a small percentage of youths achieved employment is a triumph," she said.

But the findings also contain, Ms. Wagner said, "stories of wasted potential, of youths not having or not taking advantage of opportunities for productive contributions to society."

Known as the National Longitudinal Transition Study, the $5-million, five-year project was mandated by the Congress in 1983. It tracks the progress of 8,000 disabled youths between the ages of 13 and 23 who were enrolled in special-education programs during the 1985-86 school year.

The findings on out-of-school status are contained in the first of what are expected to be a dozen or more papers to emerge from the massive research effort. Future papers will look at the role of vocational education in serving these students, how special-education programs affect scholastic achievement and graduation rates, and why some disabled young people become more independent than similarly disabled peers, among other areas.

Differing Success Rates

For this first paper, the researchers said they considered young people to be involved in "productive activities" if they were taking postsecondary courses, working for pay or on a volunteer basis, receiving job-skills training from a source other than family, or--if they were female and married--were raising a child.

The rates of productive activity were highest, the researchers found, among students who were deaf or hard-of-hearing, speech-impaired, or learning-disabled. At least 80 percent of the young people in each of those categories were actively engaged one year out of school, according to the study.

Former students who were deaf and blind, multiply handicapped, or mentally retarded fared much worse. Far fewer than half of the young people in those categories were judged to be productive.

Over all, the study revealed, fewer than half of the disabled students who had been out of school for one year had found paid employment. Among those employed, less than 30 percent had full-time jobs and 17 percent were working part-time.

In contrast, the researchers noted, studies of the general population have shown that 62 percent of out-of-school youths between the ages of 16 and 21 are employed.

Handicapped youths differed even more significantly from their nondisabled peers in the area of postsecondary education. The study found that fewer than 15 percent of disabled youths were taking postsecondary courses in their first year out of school, while data from other studies indicate that as many as 56 percent of nonhandicapped youths enroll in such programs in their first two years after high school.

The researchers also found that only 56 percent of the handicapped students they followed had left school by graduating. The rest had either dropped out or "aged out" of special-education programs.

'New Wave' of Studies

"I think that, over all, it's a negative," Eugene Edgar, a professor of education at the University of Washington at Seattle, said of the findings.

"I would hope that you'd have a much higher rate than 69 percent engaged, because the inverse of that--30 percent doing nothing--is pretty awful," he said.

Mr. Edgar, who has been conducting follow-up studies of 2,000 special-education students in his state, said the national study's findings are conel10lsistent with those from a "new wave" of smaller studies done in a handful of states since the early 1980's. The new national data, he said, provide a "benchmark" for future research.

In interviews, researchers said all of the studies illustrate a shift in the focus of special-education research.

"Since pl 94-142 [the federal special-education law], everybody had been interested in getting kids into special education, placing them in the least restrictive environments" and other issues of access, said Dennis Mithaug, a professor of special education at the University of Colorado. But the new follow-up studies, he said, have "started people wondering whether 'the great intervention' has had any effect."

'Leverage Points'

In addition to studying handicapped students' transitions into adulthood, the sri study also identified several of what Ms. Wagner called danger signals or "leverage points" that signal a student's increased likelihood of dropping out.

The study showed, for example, that younger students were more likely to drop out of school or receive failing grades than older students.

"This suggests that efforts to put youths on a trajectory toward positive transition outcomes must begin early," the researchers concluded.

Students who belonged to few school or community groups also had poorer outcomes, implying that schools can help by sponsoring extracurricular activities for handicapped young people.

Handicapped students who were male, emotionally disturbed, lower on the socioeconomic ladder, or displayed disciplinary problems were also more likely to have received failing grades during the previous school year.

Copies of "The Transition Experiences of Youth with Disabilities: A Report From the National Longitudinal Transition Study" will be available sometime within the next year from two of the U.S. Education Department's educational resource information centers. The centers are operated by the Council for Exceptional Children in Reston, Va., and the American Institutes for Research in Washington.

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