College & Workforce Readiness

Grad-Rate Rise for Special Education Students Beats That of Overall Population

By Christina A. Samuels — October 17, 2016 2 min read
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Graduation rates among students with disabilities rose from 59 percent in the 2010-11 school year to 64.6 percent in the 2014-15 school year—a 5.6 percentage point increase that is higher than the 4.2 percentage point increase seen among the overall student population in the same time period.

The graduation rate among students with disabilities still trails the overall student graduation rate, though. The graduation rate for all students was 83.2 percent, which is 18.6 percentage points higher than the rate for students with disabilities.

That overall graduation rate is the highest it has been since the federal government first started requiring all states to use the same method of calculating how many students graduate from high school on time with a standard diploma. States must calculate how many 9th graders leave school with a diploma four years later, after making adjustments for transfers both into and out of the class.

The growth in the overall graduation rate, however, was seen by President Barack Obama as a cause for celebration on Monday. My colleagues at Politics K-12 covered the president’s visit to Benjamin Banneker High School in Washington D.C., a rigorous public magnet school, where he talked about the graduation results and the administration’s work in education in general.

The National Center for Education Statistics lists the overall, and state-by-state, graduation rates.

Challenges Tracking Graduation Rates Among Students with Disabilities

As I’ve mentioned in other articles about graduation rates, observers have to be careful about these percentages. As I wrote last year, states may have different definitions for what a counts as a “regular high school diploma” for a student with a disability.

Also, states may have different definitions of a “student with a disability.” Some states may consider those who started high school with an individualized education program to fit the definition, while others may consider only students who graduated with an IEP in place to be students with a disability. And, students with disabilities are allowed to stay in school until age 21, so they may take longer than four years to earn a regular high school diploma (though students who stay in school longer generally have more severe disabilities and are on an alternate academic track.)

America’s Promise Alliance, an advocacy organization pushing for a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, said that states would have to continue to close graduation gaps among some student groups to reach that goal.

“While we are pleased to see continued progress in raising graduation rates, we realize that much work remains,” said Alma Powell, the chairwoman of the Alliance, in a statement. “Too many young people are still being left behind. There are currently nearly 700,000 16-19 year olds who are not in school and do not have a high school diploma. If we are to reach 90 percent, we must redouble our efforts to close graduation gaps for key subgroups, including students of color and students from low-income families, English-language learners, homeless students, and students with disabilities.”

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