Special Education

More Disabled Students Graduating, Ed. Dept. Report Says

By Lisa Fine — December 06, 2000 3 min read
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More of the nation’s special education students are graduating from high school with regular diplomas than ever before, according to the Department of Education’s annual report to Congress on the progress of students with disabilities.

For More Information

Read the “22nd Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” from the U.S. Department of Education.

At the same time, the number of those students dropping out of school is slowly falling, says the report, which was issued on Nov. 29 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the landmark federal law that guarantees an appropriate public education to students with disabilities. A record 55.4 percent of special education students graduated from high school with diplomas—rather than certificates of attendance or certificates of completion—in the 1997-98 school year, the most recent year for which data were available. That compares with 51.7 percent in 1993-94. In that same period, the dropout rate for special education students fell to 31 percent from 34.7 percent, the report states.

The department has charted incremental developments in graduation trends each year, but the IDEA anniversary presented an opportunity for officials to take a bigger look at overall progress.

Before the 1970s, the report says, children with disabilities received inadequate services from public schools, and many were excluded from school altogether.

Education Department officials praised the progress made since President Gerald R. Ford signed what was originally called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act into law in 1975, but said many challenges remain.

“An anniversary is a time for celebration, but also for reflection,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said. “I look forward to a time when all teachers are prepared to educate a full range of students.”

Special education advocates said they were encouraged by the graduation and dropout trends indicated by the report, but believe more needs to be done to educate such students properly.

“It’s promising, but we definitely want to see more,” said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children, a national special education advocacy group. “It is far below the graduation rate of nondisabled students. We want full equality, and we still have a lot of problems where people do not understand students with disabilities and the needs of educators who teach them.”

Inclusion Rates Cited

Judith E. Heumann, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, pointed out that she had seen the progress of the law from personal experience. In a story she has related at many public gatherings, she recalled how she was turned away from her neighborhood school in New York City because she was in a wheelchair, having had polio as a child.

The new report highlights the progress made in including disabled students in regular classrooms. In 1997-98, 46.4 percent of disabled students ages 6 to 21 spent at least 80 percent of the school day in regular classrooms.

The report, the last one by the Clinton administration, served as something of a roundup of statistics on the work done on special education during President Clinton’s tenure. Ms. Heumann attributed the gains during that time in part to the 1997 IDEA reauthorization and to the administration’s efforts.

The report points to some trouble spots, including a shortage of special education teachers who are male, are members of minority groups, or who have bilingual education training. And prenatal exposure to alcohol and nicotine remains a problem that can lead to disabilities at birth, it says.

Among the categories of students with disabilities, the largest growth came in the number classified as having “other health impairments,” a group that includes those diagnosed with attention deficit disorders. Also, the number of students with autism rose substantially, which the report attributed to better identification, as well as the reclassification of previously identified students. IDEA reports for the past several years have charted similar patterns.

The greatest increase in the ranks of special education students is occurring among preschoolers, the report says. Special education advocates said that trend suggests disabilities are being treated earlier.

“The earlier we begin giving these children services, the more likely they are to succeed in education and in life,” Ms. Van Kuren said. But she voiced disappointment that the report did not address the teaching conditions and preparedness of special education teachers, issues highlighted in last year’s report.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as More Disabled Students Graduating, Ed. Dept. Report Says

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