Study Finds Wide Variation in Graduation Rates for Students with Disabilities;
Little Relationship with Graduation Policies
The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) is out with a new report that explored states' 2014-15 requirements for students with disabilities (who participate in the general assessment) to earn a regular diploma, and compared those requirements to the requirements held for their peers without disabilities.
Using information collected from state websites, Graduation Policies for Students with Disabilities Who Participate in States' General Assessments looked at both the course requirements and, in those states that had them, the exit assessment requirements.
The report assigned a comparison rating to each state's course requirements for students with disabilities compared to their peers: Same, Close To, or Far From. The report found that only 14 states held the same graduation requirements for their students with disabilities and their peers; 30 of the 51 states had course requirements for their students with disabilities that were not the same (less rigorous) as those for their peers. The report also lays out the nature of the course requirements in those states that had different course requirements for students with disabilities.
Not all states require that students take an exit assessment to receive a regular diploma. For those states that have exit assessments, the report assigned a comparison rating exit assessment requirements for students with disabilities compared to their peers: Same, Close To, or Far From. The report found that 19 of the 27 states with exit assessments held less rigorous requirements for their students with disabilities compared to their peers. As with the course requirements, in states that had exit assessment requirements that differ for students with disabilities, the report provides the specific details on the nature of those differences.
Comparison of Graduation Rates and State Policies
Graduation rate data for students with disabilities is available from two sources - (1) the 4 Year Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) and (2) the Leaver Rate (based on IDEA Exiting Data). Both of these approaches require that only students who earn a regular high school diploma by completing an educational program identical to that for which students without disabilities are eligible are to be counted as graduating with a regular high school diploma. The calculation does not include any alternative degree that is not fully aligned with the state’s academic standards, such as a certificate or GED. However, there is one important distinction between the two rates. States determine which students will be included in the ACGR of students with disabilities. As noted in Table 5.1 of Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2014, "The time when students are identified as having certain characteristics varies by state. Depending on the state, a student may be included in a category if the relevant characteristic is reported in 9th-grade data, if the characteristic is reported in 12th-grade data, or if it is reported at any point during the student's high school years." Because many students enter and exit special education eligibility during their time in the cohort, the ACGR for the "students with disabilities" group is not comparable across states.
We examined these two graduation rates in conjunction with the graduation policy comparison rating assigned to each state by NCEO. That analysis showed little correlation between the reported rates of students with disabilities graduating with a regular high school diploma (as defined above) and the rating of the states' policies.
The analysis can be viewed below or downloaded here. (PDF, 2 pgs.)
The NCEO report raises questions about the validity of the graduation rates being reported by many states. Some states with high graduation rates have graduation requirements vastly different and less rigorous than those for non-disabled students.
Take, for example, the state of Arkansas.
The Natural State reports one of the highest rates of students with disabilities leaving school having earned a regular high school diploma (84.7% Leaver Rate, 80.4% ACGR). NCEO rates the state's graduation requirements as "Far From" those for students without disabilities whose ACGR is 84.9% - one of the smallest graduation gaps across all states. According to information posted on the state's website, "For students with disabilities, the Individualized Education Program (IEP) serves as the student's 'graduation plan' (14.04.1) and "…For a student with disabilities, fulfillment of the requirements set forth in the student's IEP constitutes the basis for graduation from high school" (14.04.2). In contrast, graduation requirements for non-disabled students state that "Student must earn 22 credits in the SMART CORE curriculum, as follows (unless a waiver is obtained)"
The Arkansas graduation policy for students with disabilities strongly suggests that many students are being reported as having earned a regular high school diploma (that complies with the definition above) when in reality they are receiving a diploma based on achievement of IEP goals - goals that can be completely unrelated to completion of coursework. This suspicion is further validated by the achievement of Arkansas's students with disabilities on the state's high school assessments in Reading (14% proficent) and Mathematics (38% proficient).
While many Arkansas students with disabilities may very well be earning their diploma by satisfying the graduation requirments for non-disabled students (with appropriate accommodations), current reporting does not provide any data on such students. Yet based on the definitions for reporting graduates, only these students should be reported as graduating with a regular diploma. Students with disabilities being awarded a regular high school diploma without meeting the same requirements as those without disabilities should be reported as "received a certificate."
According to the guidance issued by the Office of Special Education Programs to states for reporting categories of students exiting school (available here), "received a certificate" is defined as follows:
This distinction is particularly important since the U.S. Dept. of Education added graduation rate to the elements used to determine each state's implementation of the IDEA. (More here.) States are assigned points (ranging from zero to two) for graduation rates (based on the Leaver rate) - a rate of 77% or above earned two points, a rate between 59% and 76% earned one point and a rate of 58% or below earned zero points. These points were combined with scores earned in several other elements culminating in an overal "Results Score." Arkansas's reported graduation rate of 84.7% earned it two points for this element - one of only 16 states reporting a graduation rate of 77% or higher. Arkansas reported that only 1.5% of its students with disabilities received a certificate.
"These students exited an educational program and received a certificate of completion, modified diploma, or some similar document. This includes students who received a high school diploma, but did not meet the same standards for graduation as those for students without disabilities. This also includes students receiving any alternative degree that is not fully aligned with the state’s academic standards, such as a certificate or a GED, so long as the student remained continuously enrolled in the secondary education program."
In sharp contrast, let's look at the state of Mississippi. The Magnolia State reports one of the lowest rates of students with disabilities leaving school having earned a regular high school diploma (28.8% Leaver Rate) and one of the largest gaps in ACGR between students with disabilities and those without (22% vs. 75%). NCEO rates the state's graduation requirements as the "Same" as those for students without disabilities. The state's students with disabilities perform similar to those in Arkansas on the state's high school assessment (13% proficient in Reading, 33% proficient in Math). Mississippi received zero points on the graduation element of its IDEA determination. The state reported that 61% of its students with disabilities received a certificate.
Awarding students with disabilities regular high school diplomas using requirements that are "far from" the requirements for students without disabilities creates a host of problems. As stated in the 2013 Achieve publication, Graduation Requirements for Students with Disabilities: Ensuring Meaningful Diplomas for All Students,
“It is critical that high school graduates, including students with disabilities, receive a diploma that means something — that they are prepared for postsecondary education and careers. All students deserve access to the academic skills they need so that they can make their own career decisions. They should not have those decisions made for them because they did not have the academic preparation they needed or, worse, left high school with a diploma believing they had been prepared.”
Implications of the varied graduation policies across states as well as the dizzying array of alternative exiting documents were also explored in a Webinar presented by NCEO Executive Director, Martha Thurlow, and The Advocacy Institute Director, Candace Cortiella in December 2014. Diplomas awarded via substantial modifications to requirements for a standard diploma may:
- not reflect level of readiness required for postsecondary education and/or career;
- mislead students and families;
- result in loss of continued special ed services as allowable by IDEA.
NCEO again reported on the variance of graduation policies for students with disabilities across states in a 2016 Achieve report, Diplomas That Matter: Ensuring Equity of Opportunity for Students with Disabilities.
This troubling array of policies for students with disabilities comes at a time when a new survey by Achieve, Rising to the Challenge: College Instructors’ Views on High School Graduates’ Preparedness for College, reveals that 78% of college faculty and 62% of employers believe that public high schools are not doing enough to prepare students for the expectations they will face in college and the working world. Equally concerning is the finding that few recent high school graduates (26%) reported having high academic expectations in high school. Most (54%) reported moderate expectations and 20% reported low expectations.
These findings converge to indicate an urgent need for a review of policies currently in place across states regarding graduation requirements for students with disabilities. And, as the NCEO report concludes "This is perhaps more important now than ever before because of the need for students with disabilities to have the college and career readiness skills to be successful after leaving high school with their diplomas."