Graduation Rates for Students with Disabilities on the Rise

By Christina A. Samuels — March 23, 2015 2 min read
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Recently, the U.S. Department of Education broke out four-year graduation rates for different student subgroups as of the 2012-13 school year. My colleagues over at Politics K-12 examined the numbers for students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches and for students who are ethnic and racial minorities. But let’s take a closer look at what the numbers show for students with disabilities, and the cautions one must take when analyzing these figures.

The graduation rate for students with disabilities was 61.9 percent. But the rates in individual states can vary widely—from 22.5 percent in Mississippi to 80.4 in neighboring Arkansas—as you can see from this handy map:

This is the third year that states have released what is called the “adjusted cohort graduation rate,” using an Education Department-mandated formula. States must calculate how many 9th graders leave school four years later, after making adjustments for transfers both into and out of the class. The Idaho numbers are missing because the Education Department granted that state an extension on reporting.

The graduation rate for students with disabilities has risen from 59 percent in 2010-11, to 61 percent in 2011-12, to the most recent statistics of 61.9 percent in 2012-13. That’s 2.9 percentage points of growth over the time span. The student population as a whole has also shown improvement in graduation over that time, but the growth rate was just a hair slower: from 79 percent, to 80 percent, to 81.4 percent over the same three school years. That’s 2.4 percentage points of growth.

(An aside: the subgroup showing the highest rate of growth are American Indian students, who have gone from a 65 percent graduation rate to a 69.7 percent graduation rate.)

A couple of caveats with these statistics make it difficult to compare one state’s graduation figures to another, and also to the overall graduation rate. For one thing, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act allows students with disabilities to stay in school at least until age 21, or longer if state laws allow. (Michigan, for example, allows students to remain in public school until age 26.) So a 4-year graduation rate measure may not capture all students with disabilities who ultimately leave school with a “regular high school diploma.”

Also, states may have different definitions for what a “regular high school diploma” is for a students with a disability. For example, check out the difference between Kentucky and Arkansas policies, as explained in a 2013 document on promoting higher graduation rates in special education that was jointly published by the education reform organization Achieve and the National Center for Educational Outcomes:

Kentucky requires all students to complete 22 credits for high school graduation, including three credits of mathematics through Algebra II. The state's regulations provide flexibility to local boards of education to substitute alternative "functional, integrated, applied, interdisciplinary, occupational, technical or higher level" courses for students with disabilities if the courses provide "rigorous content ... based on grade-level content standards and may be modified to allow for a narrower breadth, depth, or complexity of the general grade-level content standards. Students in Arkansas must complete a college- and career-ready course of study to graduate under the state's Smart Core curriculum. However, graduation requirements for students with disabilities are set through the IEP process.

[UPDATE (March 24): Candace Cortiella, the founder of the Advocacy Institute, brings up a point in a comment that is also important to consider: states vary in how they define a “student with a disability” for the purposes of this calculation. Some states may consider those who started high school with an individualized education program to fit the definition. Others may consider only students who graduated with an IEP to be “students with a disability.” Another method is to count students who had IEPs at any point in high school as students with disabilities.]

So, even within standardization, there is variability.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.