After spending years in a special education system that carefully spells out their rights and the services they should receive, students with disabilities often find it daunting to contemplate their next steps after high school. Should they apply to college, look for a job, or stay in the special education system until they “age out” at 21? And, if they do opt for college or work, what kinds of supports and accommodations are these students entitled to?
To paraphrase a parent-advocate quoted in this edition of Education Week‘s Diplomas Count report, it’s like going to a restaurant, asking for a menu, and being told there isn’t one. Families must puzzle out the options for themselves. And while federal special education law requires schools to provide students with transition planning before they turn 16, parents often complain that the discussion starts too late or is too general.
This report examines the transition out of K-12 schooling for students with disabilities, who account for 8.5 percent of the nation’s 6- to 21-year-olds. The 2015 Diplomas Count report also includes the latest statistics on the nation’s overall, on-time high school graduation rate. The news is good: 81 percent of the class of 2013—a historic high—graduated in four years, as tabulated by the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate.
The four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities, while also rising, is lower, at 62 percent. This national average masks a huge amount of variation from state to state, from a graduation-rate low of 23 percent in Mississippi to 80 percent in Arkansas. Further muddying the picture, states have the discretion to set graduation requirements for special education students. In some states, those students can earn a standard diploma with easier classes or lower passing scores than their peers without disabilities. And school discipline practices that disproportionately mete out suspensions and expulsions to special education students also keep graduation rates low.
Other articles focus on the need for students with disabilities to learn early to advocate for themselves in the wider world and explore paths to the workplace and college—the latter becoming a growing destination for this population.
Finally, a highlight of this year’s report is five profiles of young adults with a range of disabilities who are currently in the transition pipeline. They discuss their successes and disappointments and their drive to succeed. “I’ve never had it easy in school,” explained one confident high school senior from Decatur, Ga., “so I know how to fight.”