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Disabled Students Found To Achieve 'Mixed Success'

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WASHINGTON--Young people with disabilities are meeting with "mixed success'' as they struggle through high school and search for meaningful, well-paid employment, data from three new federal studies indicate.

The studies are the most recent to emerge from the National Longitudinal Transition Study, a five-year, $5-million effort to track the progress of 8,000 disabled students who were enrolled in secondary schools in 1985-86.

The three studies consist of a 600-page compilation of all of the longitudinal project's findings to date, together with smaller reports dealing with the issues of dropouts and disabled students' post-school employment status.

While some of the data have been published previously, the studies, which were formally released by the Education Department late last month, paint the most complete picture to date of the high-school and post-school experiences of disabled students.

"It's definitely a good news/bad news kind of thing,'' said Mary Wagner, who directs the ongoing research project for óòé International, a California-based firm.

"You see real indications of achievement there for some kids,'' she noted, "but then you realize how few they are.''

More Have Jobs

On a positive note, for example, the data suggest that most disabled students are moving more easily into jobs within four years of leaving high school.

Among a subsample of 800 students, the rate of employment increased from 50 percent in 1987 to 67 percent two years later.

Of the four disability categories studied--learning-disabled, mentally retarded, speech-impaired, and emotionally disturbed--students with learning disabilities fared best in the workplace. Four years after leaving school, 69.4 percent of learning-disabled students held jobs--a rate about equal to that of their nondisabled peers.

Students in all the disability categories tended at first to get low-skilled, minimum-wage, and often part-time jobs, the study points out. But as time went on, most students, with the exception of those with emotional disabilities, began to secure steadier, better-paying employment.

Moreover, 82 percent of those employed in 1989 said they felt they had the opportunity to advance in their work.

Some of those generally positive results may be tempered, however, by the finding that only about 14 percent of all pupils with disabilities received any kind of postsecondary education or training in the two years after leaving school.

"These kids don't go on to other kinds of training like kids in the general population do,'' Ms. Wagner said, "and I have serious concerns about their longterm employability, particularly once the college graduates in this age group enter the workforce.''

School Struggles

The studies also suggest that students with disabilities are having a difficult time in high school. One study noted, for example, that only half the students who left school during the course of the study did so by graduating. Nearly one-third of the students who left had dropped out.

In contrast, about three-quarters of all young people--both disabled and nondisabled--earn a diploma.

"If students with disabilities contribute disproportionately to the dropout problem, why are they not actively and explicitly included in efforts to solve it?'' the researchers wrote.

The researchers said the dropout problem among students with disabilities has its precursors in a pattern of poor school performance. Students with disabilities were absent from school, on average, three full weeks in their most recent school year. More than a third of the students had also failed a course during that school year.

Both factors, the studies found, were directly linked to students' propensity to drop out.

Contrary to expectations, the researchers also discovered that most disabled high-school students were spending most of their time in regular-education classes.

Examinations of the students' school records indicated that 86 percent of disabled students took some mainstreamed classes, which included academic, vocational-education, art, music, and physical-education courses.

Students who spent more time in those classes, however, were also significantly more likely than students with fewer general-education courses to have failed a course in the last year, according to the data.

On the other hand, the mainstreamed students were less likely than their peers to be socially isolated. Only about 7 percent of the students who spent one-half to three-quarters of their school day in regular classes saw friends rarely or not at all. Such students also enrolled in postsecondary institutions at greater rates than those who spent more time in special-education classrooms.

Both in school and in the workplace, the problems faced by emotionally disturbed students were particularly difficult, the data indicate. More than half the students in that group left school by dropping out. Such students were also more likely to be absent and to have failed a course in the previous year.

Out of school, about 35 percent of emotionally disturbed students had been arrested--the highest percentage for any disability category.

In the workplace, one study found, students with emotional disturbances left employment about as often as they found it. Slightly more than 16 percent of such students had a job in 1987, but not in 1989; 19 percent had a job in 1989, but not in 1987.

"These kids are particularly worrisome because the pattern of outcomes is disturbing,'' Ms. Wagner noted.

Vocational Classes Backed

The researchers also identified a number of steps schools could take that could lead to better outcomes for all students with disabilities.

Students who took occupationally oriented vocational education, for example, were estimated to miss one less day of school and to be three percentage points less likely to drop out, after the researchers controlled for factors such as race or disability type. Such programs were also linked to higher employment rates for disabled students.

"I think most of us in the field believed vocational education was important, but often things that are important don't show up in the data,'' said Louis Danielson, an analyst with the Education Department's office of special-education programs, which funds the ongoing longitudinal study. "But this indicates it's more powerful than I thought it would've been.''

Similarly, students who had received counseling or some other one-on-one educational service, such as tutoring, were also less likely to drop out.

"The theory that you can wrap around this is that it's the one-to-oneness that may make the difference, communicating to kids that there are real adult people in the school who care about whether they succeed or not,'' Ms. Wagner said.

In addition, students who had participated in extracurricular activities were four percentage points less likely to have dropped out.

"I think what the data indicates is that we are doing some things well, and the report also identified some of the things we need to do better,'' said Robert Davila, who heads the department's office of special-education rehabilitative programs.

Mr. Davila noted in particular the need for stronger efforts to serve students with emotional disabilities and to improve transition services for all disabled students.

Delayed Release Faulted

All three studies were completed last year and were printed in September, but were not officially released by the department until late last month.

Ms. Wagner faulted the department for delaying the studies' release.

"There are lots of debates going on in the special-education community, and they're all occurring in the absence of data,'' she said. "We actually have some data, and yet it's not getting out there.''

Mr. Davila maintained, however, that there had been no deliberate delay in releasing the report. He said the department did not formally announce the availability of the studies because the researchers had been releasing some of the information to the field "in bits and pieces'' over several years.

Mr. Danielson said part of the lag in releasing the 600-page study came about because the report was so large and dealt with so many diverse topics that it had to pass through numerous offices in the department.

Another six or seven more studies will be released over the next year and a half, Ms. Wagner said.

The 600-page study, "Youth With Disabilities: How Are They Doing?'' is available for $40 each from SRI International. The two smaller studies cost $15 each.

Copies of the reports can be ordered, prepaid, from SRI International, Mail Stop BS136, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025-3493.

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