High School Completion and Transitions

David R. Johnson and Mary Wagner examined the challenges facing students with disabilities in completing high school and preparing for the transition to adult life.

November 17, 2008

High School Completion and Transitions

  • David R. Johnson is a professor and associate dean at the University of Minnesota, where he serves as director of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.
  • Mary Wagner is director of Center for Education and Human Services at SRI International, a non-profit research organization, where she is principal investigator of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2).

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

Good afternoon, and welcome to edweek.org’s Live Chat. Today we are hosting the third installment in our monthlong series of chats devoted to critical topics facing special education in the nation’s schools. In today’s discussion we are focusing high school completion and transitions to adulthood among students with disabilities. Joining us live are two of the nation’s leading research experts on those issues. David R. Johnson is a professor and associate dean at the University of Minnesota, where he serves as director of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. Mary Wagner is director of Center for Education and Human Services at SRI International, a non-profit research organization, where she is principal investigator of the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). I’m Chris Swanson, director of the EPE Research Center here at Editorial Projects in Education and also the author of a newly released report entitled “Special Education in America.” It will be my pleasure to moderate today’s lively discussion between you and our invited guests. Since we have already received lots of questions for this chat, let’s get started.

Question from Brian Cory, Vice Principal, Tenafly High School, Tenafly NJ:

The fact that students with disabilities graduate from high school at lower rates than peers seems to beg the question: curriculum or services (or both)?.....What are a few key gaps that you believe exists in these two areas that contribute the most to this fact? And what are some beliefs, practices or models that high schools should embrace to turn the tide?

Mary Wagner:

General education teachers at the secondary level have a difficult time differentiating instruction in response to students’ learning needs in their daily 45 minute period with a student. Scheduling that provides longer periods on some days can help, but teachers need the tools and commitment to find different ways to provide content. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach that shows real promise--multiple ways to present content, multiple ways to respond for the students, etc. It’s being addressed now in curriculum for younger students; needs to move up the grade level still. Folks at UCLA (Howard Adelman) are doing good work on the wide array of supports that can help all students learn better, including those with disabilities. Graduation rates are lowest for kids with emotional disturbances, and those issues are not solely academic of course. They start a cycle of behavior problems early on often, that makes school aversive to these students and the students unwanted at school. Schoolwide Positive Behavior Supports, implemented across the grade range, can help short-circuit that cycle, by starting early and being consistently applied through a school career.

Question from Beverly Bredemeyer, East End Special Education Parents:

Now that my child is out of high school and is in his 3rd year at a community college (will probably do a 4th year)how do I get his needs met that were not addressed at the high school level? Specific language disorder, social anxiety is impeding his progress.Are there any specific colleges that can help him overcome these issues and become successful in a college setting?

David R. Johnson:

There are several resources you might consult that can advise you more specifically about your child’s need. It is likely that you have consulted with the Disability Service Office or Student Support Services Offcie at the community college already. They may have specific suggestions regarding serivecs within your community and state that can address these specific issues. Postsecondary support service capacity in colleges 2yr and 4yr varies widely across the country. In your state, an additonal source to consult is your state vocational rehabilitation agency. It appears, based on your question, that employment for your adult child is not far in the offing. Making early contact, establishing eligibility, and developing an Individual Plan for Employment may result in addressing some of these additonal needs. There are some resources you can investigate. The HEATH Resource Center located at George Washington University serves as an online clearinghouse of information on postsecondary education for indivduals with disabilities (www.heath.gwu.edu). Donna Martinez is the director, you may want to contact her directly at AskHEATH@gwu.edu. Another resource is the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD)(www.ahead.org). This organization is a professional association of individuals involved in providing support services to college students with disabilities. It is difficult to recommend a college that would address the specific issues of your child. You may want to consult the National Center for Learning Disabilities (there may be a chapter in your state also). There is also a publication in print, published in its 9th edition in 2007 titled “The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or ADHA by The Princeton Review, authors Marybeth Kravets and Imy F Wax. This book lists hundreds of colleges @1,000 total) that the these authors have reviewed. The books discusses college by college admissions requirements, support services, policies and procedures on course waivers, and contact information. The book includes strategies for parents and professionals to use in finding the right program for students with special needs.

Question from Wendy Cavendish, University of Miami:

Are there any state or national findings related to level of involvement in transition plan meeting by the student and graduation rates with standard diploma and/or post school outcomes?

Mary Wagner:

Yes,in part. NLTS2 has a special topic report on the web (www.nlts2.org) that describes transition planning, including student involvement. 85% of students attend transition planning meetings; 25% attend for participate little, 58% provide input and are “moderately active”, and 12% are leaders in transition planning, according to school staff. We haven’t done analyses that look at whether variations in involvement relate to graduation or to postschool outcomes yet, although both graduation rates and early postschool outcomes have been reported (see reports on the web).

Question from Mindy K. Rosengarten, Parent:

Can you address the issue of split skills, specifically a child who is academically able, but socially vulnerable and immature?

David R. Johnson:

This question is difficult to answer without some additional information about your child, however, there are some possible sources of information to consult. if your child is still in high school and on an IEP then this should be addressed by the IEP team, with specific attention to your child’s social vulnerability/immaturity. There is also the Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder organization (www.chadd.org) that has extensive information on issues that may relate to your situation.

Question from Cannon Cameron, ESE Instruction Support, Orange Co Public Schools, Orlando:

Facilitating effective and appropriate transition assessment is an area of concern for to me. How can we streamline assessment and develop an effective continuum so that teachers will actually find it useful for driving instruction?

Mary Wagner:

There’s some interesting work going on in applying progress monitoring measurement to IEP and transition goal development and to monitoring progress against those goals. Progress monitoring uses data from frequent measurement of salient measures (usually curriculum-based in academics, but measures of progress against behavior goals also are used and measures could be established for independent living goals) to set goals to be achieved and then to plot progress. Instruction could change if growth is slower than expected or when goals are achieved. Involving teachers in establishing the measures and goals is an important step in the process.

Question from Karen Danaher-Dorr, Parent:

Are there apprenticeship opportunities for H.S. graduates with learning disabilities who fear written test-taking?

David R. Johnson:

Examples of apprenticeship opportunities for young adults with disabilities are few in number. A few sources include the Center for Educaiton and Work at the U of WI-Madison (www.cew.wisc.edu). CEW has, since 1992 worked with several high schools and their state apprenticeship office in developing what, I believe is called the Wisconsin Youth Apprenticeship Program for Students with Disabilities. TransCen Inc (www.transcen.org) of Rockville Maryland has also done some work on this and may be consulted. TransCen focuses on youth employment services, but has has some earlier experience with apprenticeship issues and student with disabilities. The director is Dr Richard Luecking, a very resourceful individual. Another web site is the Nationmal center on Secondar Education and Transition (NCSET) (www.ncset.org) which is located, here, at the U of MN. Regarding the issue of test taking. The Americans with Disabilities Act makes provions and sets forth requirements for the use of accommodations in test takiing and many other situations for persons with learning and other disabilities. Some accommodations that might apply in your situation include taking the test alone in a quiet setting,allowing for extended time in completing the exam, taping anaswrs to test questions, taking frequest breaks, etc.

Question from Rick Noke, Pres, Scotally Ent:

Are their many transitions programs at the community college level?

David R. Johnson:

This varies from state to state and community to community. A couple of resources you might check regarding that is the Heath Resource Center (www.heath.gwu.edu), AHEAD (www.ahead.org), National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (www.ncset.org), and Institute on Community Inclusion-search for postsecondary education (www.communityinclusion.org).

Question from Nancy Peterson, special education reading specialist at two middle schools in Framingham, MA:

Self-advocacy seems to be one of the most important skills, especially for students with disabilities, in making a successful transition to college and adult life. Some students are proficient and others lack this vital skill. Self-confidence also plays a role. Specifically, what can be done to explicitly teach self-advocacy to students? I know that as students move from middle to h.s and beyond, often teachers and professors expect that this skill is already present. It is so often lacking in those students with disabilities who do NOT have a sound understanding and ACCEPTANCE of their areas of difficulty and so reaching out confidently for help/clarification or whatever other assistance would be needed for success (ie implementation of whatever is in IEP or 504Plan), is too difficult for the student to manage. The kind of self-advocacy needed often takes the form of educating each professor or teacher involved, along with getting what’s needed to happen. And that requires a strong foundation of acceptance, confidence and understanding for the student to get that across and get accommodations that are needed.

Mary Wagner:

We know that self-advocacy training is rarely provided high school students with disabilities--nationally only 10% of kids get it in high school. So it may not be surprising that only one-third of out-of-school kids who were special education students in high school, when interviewed, say they do not consider themselves to have a disability--that was something they left behind in high school. So also not surprising only 12% of working out-of-school youth with disabilities have an employer who is aware of the disability and only one-third of those who are in postsecondary education have informed the school they have a disability. So they are not getting the accommodations and supports from employers or schools that they may need. If the youth aren’t self-aware of their disabilities, they cannot/will not do the kind of educating of others that you mention. That self-awareness is a huge gap.

Question from Lisa Bress, Science Teacher Leader, Windsor Public Schools:

What are colleges doing, if anything, for those students with special needs who are academically gifted, but may have difficulties with self-advocacy skills and independence?

David R. Johnson:

This is a very special situation. If the student is academically gifted there may be limited resources available from sources outside the college setting (e.g., voc rehab). In such situations a careful selection of a college and the type and level of counseling and advising they provide is necessary. The college environment requires students to be self directed and able to meet basic course taking requirements. Information needs to be provided up front that a student needs to check-in with an advisor frequently. Instruction in self advocay and self determination skills before the student leaves the high school is also advisable.

Question from Deborah Tynes, Special Education Teacher, Boston, MA:

What types of academic, social development and life skill assessments have been successfully developed and implemented to identify and remove barriers to successful high school completion and transition into the job market or on to post-secondary education and training?

Mary Wagner:

On the academic front, progress monitoring measures (curriculum-based assessments) can help teachers track students’ learning growth and then, within a response to intervention (RtI) framework, adapt instruction or provide more intensive instruction for students who are not learning at an adequate pace. Data from such measurements also are being used to develop IEP learning goals and track progress against them. Progress monitoring also has been applied for students with behavior problems (e.g.,specific behavior goals are established and then teachers complete a short form daily to say what percentage of the goals are met--more intensive intervention is provided for students not meeting 80% of goals 80% of the time). Most of this is going on at the elementary level. OSEP recognizes that little is known about effective use of progress monitoring or RtI in high school--it’s a field in need of additional research and development. A common life-skills oriented assessment is the Scales of Independent Behavior-Revised (SIB-R) developed by Robert Bruininks. It assesses motor, social interaction and communication, personal living, and community living skills. Knowing where the most serious gaps are can direct instruction.

Question from Jim Frasier, Center on Education and Work, Madison:

Do you know of any school-based transition initiatives that have Vocational Rehabilitation Transition Counselors dedicated 100%time to working with adolescents in public schools?

David R. Johnson:

We have just concluded a report that identifies varied patterns of case load assignements of transition aged youth to VR counselors. You can obtain a copy at www.vrtransitionstudy.org.

Vermont, Colorado, and Alabama are three states, but there are others, and the aforementioned report contains a case study of each of these states. There is also additional information regarding your question in this report.

Question from Paul Odham, Business Liaison,Transition Services,Orange Co. Public Schools:

Many states including Florida, have experienced significant funding cuts for agency services. Agencies for Persons with Disabilities and now even Vocational Rehabilitation have waiting lists. In this environment of reduced state funding, agency support and especially during a recession with increased unemployment; what can schools do to better prepare students for positive Postsecondary outcomes including employment?

Mary Wagner:

Career and technical education can be a positive path to improved postschool employment outcomes, but is increasingly difficult to fit into the school day, given increasing demands for academic course-taking to pass state exit exams (e.g., four years of math now required in many states). Work experience during high school also helps instill appropriate workplace behaviors, lets students hone skills, and helps bridge to postschool employment opportunities. Schools can actively link students with employers who can provide meaningful high school work experiences through effective business-education partnerships within communities. But fewer jobs will make it tough, no doubt.

Question from Deborah Tynes, Special Education Teacher, Boston, MA:

With such a weak economy and unemployment at an all time high, what is being done to ensure that there are internships and paid employment opportunities related to their post-secondary academic goals and objectives?

David R. Johnson:

Unemployment and lack of work-bsed learning and internship opportunities is a national dilemma for students with disabilities. Public schools, techncial colleges, and training programs need to work harder than ever to maintain relationships with local employers for mentoring, internships, apprenticeships and plain old job shadowing experiences. Google high school/high tech for resources related to this issue. You may also find information on the TransCen Inc. website (www.transcen.org).

Question from Frank White-Executtive Consultants-E2 Consulting Group:

Is there a mechanism/progam in place designed to address the specific details of preparing young people for entering the world of work beyond the academics? What are some of the resources under consideration?

Mary Wagner:

Career and technical education (what we used to call voc ed) is the most common path for high school students to expand their school experiences beyond the academic. Nationally, in a given semester, 61% of high school students are taking vocational education--52% taking occupationally specific voc ed and 34% taking prevocational education (e.g., job-appropriate behaviors). 70% of voc students take those courses in general education settings. A major issue, though in voc ed is finding time in the school day for it, given the increased pressure to take academic courses (e.g., four years of math required in many states). In fact, in the past 15 years or so, vocational course-taking has declined significantly, even though the original National Longitudinal Transition Study found it was positively associated with postsecondary employment and postsecondary vocational training.

Question from Jerry Ahern, Special Education Inclusion Teacher, Uniondale Schools:

When students who have learning disabilities enter collage they face a entirely new set of circumstances. Although many colleges offer LD support Educational Testing is not supplied as in-district testing. This is meaningful because many SpEd, students take longer to graduate than their peers and then expected to pay for the high price of an educational evaluation, ( Tri-annual). Are there ways for students to defer that cost?

David R. Johnson:

If the issue is one of “qualifying” the student as a student with disabilities so they can receive special support services from the college then there are two primary sources ourside agency such as from the state vocational rehabilitation agency or personal/familiy resources.I have first hand familiy experience with this situation and this is what I ran up against as a parent with a child with ADHD and LD. I know of no arrangements where such a cost has been deferred. States and indivdual colleges do vary, but I wouldn’t be too hopeful.

Question from Kathleen Carpenter, Editor, Teachers.Net Gazette, www.teachers.net:

Within the group of disabled students, which subgroups are least likely to graduate high school? In other words, what types of disabilities put students at highest risk of dropping out?

Mary Wagner:

Far and away, students in the category of emotional disturbance are least likely to complete high school. Only 56% of kids in that category finish high school, compared with 75% of students with learning disabilities, for example, and 97% of kids with hearing impairments. The situation has improved overtime; the completion rate for students with emotional disturbances was 39% in the late 80s.

Question from Melinda Waegerle, asst. prof, UNCG:

If you could give 5 tips to a high school senior for sucessful transitioning into a community collge or university what would they be?

David R. Johnson:

1. Visit several colleges before making a final decision. Meet with the college’s office for students with disabilities before going through the admissions process. Admission personnel may not have complete or sometimes misleading information about how students with disabilities are supported and accommodated.

2. Make sure that before the student leaves the school that the IEP team invites a meeting any outside agency such vocational rehabilitation who can help financially and professionally support the transition.

3. Compile useful information about the student such as a summary of performance, recent assessment informations, accommodations used, etc before the student exits high school and provide this information to the student and the college (with permission).

4. Make sure the student can describe their disability and the types of accommodations they used/need in order to be successful in the classroom.

5. preactice self advocacy skills before entering the college program. Good communication skills (such as initiating a conversation with an instructor about your accommodation needs) are essential. Question from John Cohen, Technology Director, Steilacoom Historical School District #1:

Are there software suites available to assist students and their teachers make smoother transitions to post-secondary education or the world of work?

Mary Wagner:

I’m not aware of any in wide-spread use, but there is one under development at Ohio State that teaches self-determination and other transition-oriented skills. Margo Izzo at Ohio State could tell you more about it.

Question from Robin Matusow, Miami- Dade County Public Schools, adults with disabilities program:

What have you found are the top three difficulties young persons face in transitioning from High school to post-secondary educational settings?

David R. Johnson:

#1: A general lack of information about the expectations and course taking requirements within these settings. And a lack of information regarding the availability of special support services and accomadations.

#2: Inabilitity to disclose an understanding of their disability and the accomdatations and supports they need to college staff and faculty.

#3: The expectation that the college will automatically provide accomodations and supports like they received in high school.

Question from Rob Spackey, R+D Associate, College Summit:

As a writer of a Grade 9-12 college-transition curriculum, I am curious to know if you have suggestions for lesson differentiation when discussing college/career planning for special needs students? Is differentiation even necessary?

Mary Wagner:

I think differentiation can be important no matter the content area, given that what individual students want/expect and bring to a college/career experience can vary widely as will their best ways of learning. Visual learners learn better visually, no matter what the content of the curriculum. The Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) has good material on Universal Design for Learning that may give you some ideas.

Question from Deborah Tynes, Special Education Teacher, Boston, MA:

How can a more coordinatd effort be established between School Districts, Post-Secondary Colleges Universities, Technical,and Trade Intitutions to ensure they are equipped to meet the needs of disabled students?

Mary Wagner:

Transition specialists within school districts can be important linking agents in establishing partnerships between the entities you mention. They are the ones who can reach out, find the right people in the postsecondary academic and vocational institutions in the community or nearby to work with, and articulate the needs of the students in the district. That can set the agenda for a conversation on what each group can bring to the table. It takes time and commitment and we all know our transition specialists have a whole lot on their plate already, but the kind of coordination you mention takes leadership and impetus, and they are in a key role to provide it.

Question from Heidi McDaniel, Parent, Jackson Madison County School System:

What programs are available to disabled students who may not be passing and will not graduate with a high school diploma? My daughter is autistic and the school system seems to be content to let her sit in a room until graduation so long as she is not disruptive.

David R. Johnson:

You have the right to have the IEP team convened to discuss and address this concern. This a very sensitive matter for you. I would recommend that you contact your state’s parent information center. In your case this is the Tennessee Support & Training for Exceptional Parents Inc in Greenville 800 280 STEP or 423 639 0125 (www.tnstep.org). The US Dept of Education, Office of Special Education Programs funds parent centers in each state to provide information, training and advocacy for parents in situations like this. There is also a national organization, located in MN called the Alliance-see PACER Center (www.pacer.org).

Question from Judy Zodda, Educational Consultant, Zodda College Services:

I know that when high school students with LD matriculate to college that ADA takes over in place of IDEA. Under the ADA, once the student has matriculated at a college, can the parents continue a dialogue with the Disabilities Support Services office, or must the student self-advocate for everything he/she needs? Do the same rules apply even at colleges that offer comprehensive services for LD students?

Mary Wagner:

If the student has reached the age (typically 18) where they are considered an adult, parents cannot access records, information or discuss matters with college staff without the student’s prior consent. Only if a student is under legal provision of guardianship or conservatorship by the parents can this be done. This does not preclude the parent and student (with permission) sittinig down with college staff to discuss needs and issues.

Question from Winetta Belt, Teacher, Rosemead High School:

I run a Community Based Instruction program that allows my students who cannot access the core curriculum and to prepare for an adult transition program that our district has. As the High School Exit Exam and NCLB has taken precedence within the schools, how likely is it that the pendulum is finally going to start swinging towards transition programs and vocational programs for the students who won’t be able to earn a diploma who only have mild disabilities or LD’s? The second part of this question is what kind of training is out there to assist teachers and districts to prepare for this new trend?

David R. Johnson:

The Standards Based Accountability Movement emphasized in NCLB will continue into the foreseeable future. We need to begin to demonstrate how workbased learning and other community based experiences support students academic development. In other words, what types of academic skills can be identified in specific work environments that helps a student to meet state and local academic standards. While NCLB has directed increasing attention to students academic development this does not mean that vocational and employment programming should be limited. The student’s IEP team needs to address this issue. Websites you may want to further consult are www.ncset.org, www.ncwd-youth.info, www.transcen.org.

Regarding training, Mary Morningstar at the University of Kansas has developed a major online training program that addresses some of these issues.

Cu Question from Susan, SpEd teacher, Region One:

There is no doubt that students with IEP’s face many challenges in preparing for life after high school. How have high schools with successful transition programs address the literally hundreds of different issues faced by IEP’d students (ie balancing a checkbook) with state and national requirements that expect higher order skills and achievement? My school just doesn’t seem to have enough hours in the day, manpower and “vision” pull this off effectively. HELP!

Mary Wagner:

There are many challenges as states and local school district are all attempting to meet the AYP (Annual Yearly Progress) requirements of the No Child Left Behaind Act. Since 2002 there has been a shift in focus in classroom to have all students, including staudents with disabilities meet state academic standards. Consequently, there has been reduced time available to focus on life skills. The IEP team process (as you know, so I am not trying to over simplify) is where the child’s needs, preferences, etc must be addressed. If the parents, student and team do not set this as a goal then it will not be addressed. Vision is another matter and you are not alone in trying to get these types of student skills and needs addressed.

Question from B.F. - Parent:

What recources/advice can you share with a person who has just been hired to establish and coordinate a Disabilities Support Program for a small college, but who doesn’t have prior experience working with students who have disabilities?

David R. Johnson:

There are a number of national organizations that can provide you some useful information about college level support services for students with disabilities. The Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) (www.ahead.org) is a professional association of personnel who are involved in college and university disability service offices. This would be the primary organization to contact. Another organization Heath Resource Center (www.heath.gwu.edu) is a national clearinghouse of information, resources and links to a wide range of strategies and practices that support the participation of students with disabilities in postsecondary education.

Christopher B. Swanson (Moderator):

I always hate to cut a great discussion short, but I’m afraid that’s all the time we have today. Thanks to everyone who joined the chat for sharing their excellent questions, many of which, unfortunately, we did not have time to answer. And special appreciation goes out to our guests – David Johnson and Mary Wagner – for their time, insights, and enthusiasm.

A transcript of this chat will be available on Education Week’s Web site shortly: http://www.edweek.org/chat. If you would like more information about the EPE Research Center’s new report or this month’s series of chats on special education, you can find all of that here. The Fine Print

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