Historically, students with disabilities have struggled to graduate in the same numbers as their peers. Graduation rates for these students have improved, but wide disparities remain.
The most recent graduation rate for students with disabilities is 52.75 percent, according to the 2015-2016 Required Federal Reporting Measures Commonwealth of Pennsylvania report. That’s well behind the District’s five-year graduation rate of 71.63 percent and the statewide graduation rate for students with disabilities of 71.60 percent.
To address this issue, we must understand the pathways to graduation for students with disabilities, the specific barriers to success that confront these students, and how to adapt and integrate recognized strategies to improve graduation rates and lifelong success.
Path to graduation: Students with disabilities in Pennsylvania may obtain a regular diploma if they complete the same graduation requirements as regular education students. If they are unable to meet a district's graduation requirements due to a disability, they may graduate and receive a regular diploma by completing the goals in their IEP (Individualized Education Program).
Graduation is a change in placement for a student with disabilities, so a district or charter school must provide written notice to the parents of their intent to graduate a student. If a parent does not agree with a proposed decision to graduate the child before age 21, the parent can challenge the decision. Although a school does not have to re-evaluate a student before recommending graduation, it is suggested to determine whether the child has met IEP goals. This re-evaluation can also inform development of a 504 Accommodations Plan for post-secondary school.
A student with a disability who has completed four years of high school but is not graduating with his peers can continue to receive special education and related services until age 21, but must also be permitted to participate in the graduation ceremony with his same-grade peers and receive a “certificate of completion” as part of the graduation ceremony, then a regular diploma when schooling ends.
Once a student accepts a high school diploma, the student cannot continue to receive a free education or special education services. But the school must provide the student with a summary of his or her academic achievement and functional performance, including recommendations to develop post-secondary goals.
Barriers to graduation: Students may receive inappropriate services and supports due to inaccurate diagnoses or delays in identifying disabilities. In some cases, schools lack sufficient resources to support students, programming is not sufficiently individualized, or classroom teachers fail to modify instruction to meet student needs. In other instances, transition planning starts too late or is deficient. And in many cases, students with disabilities are negatively impacted by low expectations. These barriers can be addressed with more extensive teacher training and proven strategies to support graduation.
High expectations: Evidence-based research demonstrates that maintaining high expectations for students with disabilities improves graduation rates. They graduate at higher rates in states that apply the same requirements for students with and without disabilities and discourage the use of alternate, special education diplomas.
Inclusion works: Providing opportunities to take classes alongside typically developing peers is associated with higher rates of graduation. A peer-reviewed study across all disability categories concluded that students who are included in classes with their non-disabled peers for most of the day have substantially higher on-time graduation rates when compared to students in substantially separate placements, even when controlling for individual and community factors.
Rigorous, youth-driven transition planning: This has been part of the IEP process as a federally mandated requirement for 10 years. In Pennsylvania, it starts at age 14. However, too often, transition plans are not sufficiently detailed or are undertaken too late in the process, after a student has disengaged. Transition planning provides an important opportunity for youth to become engaged in establishing goals and identifying a path to graduation and beyond. It is essential that IEP teams use this process to identify needed services and interventions to support students to graduate.
Reduce risk factors that impact the likelihood of school completion: Students with disabilities are disproportionately subjected to exclusionary school discipline practices, such as out-of-school suspension. Schools need to examine policies and practices that result in this disproportionately, adopt rigorous and uniform methods for conducting Manifestation Determination Reviews, and create trauma-informed and culturally responsive learning environments through Multi-Tiered System of Support and evidence-based methodologies that improve social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes.
Expand options and resources: Investing in Universal Design for Learning and dedicating resources toward testing promising ideas such as Everyday Arts for Special Education and Unconditional Education programs also supports students with disabilities to graduate.
Accountability: Use a data system to identify, monitor, and increase the graduation rate of students with disabilities (i.e. Early Warning System) and use clear mechanisms to hold school leaders accountable for the graduation of students with disabilities.
We need to make the success of students with disabilities a top priority by increasing efforts to support additional students with disabilities in general education settings, maintaining high expectations, and expanding investments in proven strategies to support students through graduation and beyond.
Maura McInerney is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.