Special Report
Special Education

Graduation Rates Vary for Students With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — May 29, 2015 4 min read

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education directed states to use a uniform method of calculating high school graduation rates—a move intended to introduce true comparability to an important measure of school accountability.

But when it comes to students with disabilities, the uniformity that policymakers sought disappears.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act permits students in special education to stay in school until age 21, even though the uniform calculation focuses on students who graduate in four years. States also have a say in determining what courses a student with a disability can take to meet diploma requirements.

The implications are broader than just making it more difficult for researchers and policymakers to compare one state to another. Students with disabilities can potentially leave school with a “regular” diploma that includes coursework less rigorous than the work required of their typically developing peers.

Most students covered under the IDEA do not have a disability that would indicate a need for less-challenging coursework. Among students ages 6-21, 40 percent have “specific learning disabilities” such as dyslexia; another 18 percent are classified with a speech or language disability, and the 14 percent in the third biggest category have “other health impairments.” That might include attention deficit hyperactive disorder, epilepsy, or diabetes.

These numbers do not include smaller groups of students who are blind, deaf or have other disabilities, but not intellectual impairments. Experts believe these students may need supports, but not a less-rigorous curriculum.

“Why aren’t we looking at that more—why aren’t we investing in a better understanding of the implications?” asked David R. Johnson, the director of the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who has surveyed states on their graduation requirements for students with disabilities. “I think there is so much that we have not unraveled on this that really needs to be looked at with a closer eye.”

What is ‘Standard’?

Graduation rates are now determined by counting how many 9th graders in a state leave school with a standard diploma four years later, with some wiggle room allowed for students who transfer into and out of their 9th grade cohort. The final calculation is known as the “adjusted cohort graduation rate.”

Interactive Map: Graduation Rates by State, Student Group

But what is a standard diploma? As of 2010-11, the most recent national research on the topic, more than half the states—36—allowed IEP teams to have some level of input into what counts as a high school completion requirement for students with disabilities. That number comes from a survey of states conducted by Mr. Johnson and Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, also based at the University of Minnesota.

Graduation requirements change frequently, and a new survey is underway. But in the 2010-11 school year, states reported allowing students with disabilities to take easier substitute courses to count for credit, allowing them to skip end-of-course tests, or, alternatively, permitting them to earn a lower score on those end-of-course tests than their typically developing peers, but still receive a passing grade.

States also are able to decide for themselves the definition of “student with a disability” for the purpose of calculating graduation rates. Some states consider any student who started high school in special education to be a student with a disability, while others may count only those who ended high school with an IEP.

A Wider Spread

The influence of those variables is seen in the range of graduation rates reported by states. For the 2012-13 school year, among the general student population, the lowest reported rate was 62 percent, in the District of Columbia, and the highest was 90 percent, in Iowa. The percentage-point spread between the high and low rates is 28.

Among students with disabilities that same school year, however, the low ranges from 23 percent in Mississippi to 80 percent in Arkansas—a 57 percentage-point spread.

“There has been no scrutiny of what states and districts are doing regarding graduation requirements for students with disabilities,” said Candace Cortiella, the founder of the Marshall, Va.-based Advocacy Institute and the author of a 2013 report “Diplomas at Risk.” That report looked at how differing graduation requirements affected students with specific learning disabilities.

Some scrutiny may be coming, however. Melody Musgrove, the director of the federal office of special education programs, said that the Education Department will ask some states to explain their graduation numbers.

In addition to the adjusted cohort graduation rate, states have long had to report a “leaver rate” for students with disabilities to the federal government. That number is calculated differently from the adjusted cohort graduation rate, so federal officials do not expect an exact match, but did note some larger-than-expected discrepancies.

“We’re working with states to better understand those, and to better help states understand what the requirements mean,” she said.

But requiring that IEP teams be dropped from the process of determining graduation requirements is not currently under consideration, said Ruth Ryder, the deputy director of the special education office.

“Some states have alternate pathways to a regular diploma that allow students to demonstrate what they know and can do related to the general curriculum. They would involve the IEP team making that decision,” Ms. Ryder said. “One of the things we’ve heard is that some people want us to say that anything that involves the IEP in earning a regular diploma is bad, and we don’t believe that’s true. There are legitimate alternate pathways to a regular diploma that hold students with disabilities to high standards.”

Coverage of the implementation of college and career-ready standards is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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