In January, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released its most recent numbers on the percentage of public high school students who graduate with a regular diploma and on time, that is, within four years of starting ninth grade.

This adjusted cohort graduation rate, or ACGR, is one of several measures that can be used to gauge progress on high school completion and dropout rates in the U.S. The recently reported figures are for the 2016-17 school year.

Upward Trend for All Students

Since 2010-11, when the ACGR was first reported, the overall trend in graduation rates for all U.S. students has been positive – and celebrated as a bright spot in education outcomes. For all students counted under the ACGR measure, graduation rates increased from 79 percent in 2010-11 to 84 percent in 2015-16. The latest figures show a continuing modest upward trend. The 2016-17 rate for all students is 84.6 percent, an increase of half a percentage point over the previous year.

Of course, not all student subgroups are graduating at the same rate. Researchers and policymakers are concerned with gaps that exist between students of different race or ethnicity, as well as for other special populations including those who are economically disadvantaged, have limited English proficiency, or are students with disabilities. The NCES data allows us to track the progress of each of these groups.

NSBA’s Center for Public Education (CPE) looked at how students with disabilities are doing. Students with disabilities are one focus of NSBA’s concern with equity in public education because of the special challenges and lagging outcomes they historically have experienced. This year, NSBA kicked off a campaign to reauthorize a modernized and fully funded Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, so that public schools can better serve students with disabilities. IDEA is the federal law that guides and provides support to schools for the education of these children.

Bad News, Good News

The bad news is that students with disabilities graduate on time, with regular diplomas, at a much lower rate than for all students. The average graduation rate for students with disabilities–those served by IDEA–was 67.1 percent, according to the latest data. That’s 17.5 percentage points lower than the 84.6 percent rate at which all students graduated.

In other words, roughly only two of every three students with disabilities graduated with a regular high school diploma and within four years of starting ninth grade. The other one of three took longer to graduate with a regular diploma, graduated with an alternate diploma, or didn’t graduate at all.

Certainly, this sobering data tells us that students with disabilities are at a disadvantage in their college and career paths compared to the more than four out of five high school students overall who graduated on time and with a regular diploma.

There’s some good news, though. Several states were able to achieve exceptionally high graduation rates for students with disabilities. Arkansas (83.8 percent), Kansas (78.4 percent), New Jersey (78.8 percent), and Texas (77.4 percent) all exceeded the national average rate for students with disabilities by more than ten percentage points.

Two of these states also reported the narrowest gaps in the nation between all students and students with disabilities. Compared with the national average gap of 17.5 percentage points, the gap in Arkansas was only 4.2 percentage points and in Kansas was 8.1 percentage points. Three other states – Montana, New Mexico, and Oklahoma – also were able to narrow the gap to 10 percentage points or less.

While these states are beating the national average, a few others are still graduating students with disabilities at rates barely above 50 percent. And, according to the data, in one state only about one-third of these students graduated on time with a regular diploma.

It’s not the case that states with low graduation rates for students with disabilities have low graduation rates across the board. In fact, the states with the lowest graduation rates for students with disabilities also have some of the largest gaps—20 to 30 percentage points or more—in graduation rates between students with disabilities and all students. That state graduating just one-third of its special education students? Its overall graduation rate was over 80 percent.

State education agencies provide the ACGR data published by NCES, and states vary in their requirements for obtaining a regular public high school diploma. Still, the data is considered the most accurate available for assessing and comparing on-time graduation rates.

Closing the Gap

The data also tell us another small piece of good news: While the graduation rate for all students in the U.S. increased from 2015-16 to 2016-17, the rate for students with disabilities grew even a bit faster. For all students the rate increased from 84.1 percent to 84.6 percent, or 0.5 percentage points. For students with disabilities it increased from 65.5 percent to 67.1 percent, or 1.6 percentage points.

As a result, the overall gap in graduation rates between students with disabilities and for all students closed somewhat, albeit modestly. Across the nation, gaps closed in 32 states, and at rates faster than the national average in 15 states. However, gaps widened in 18 states.

Points to Consider

Overall, graduation rates for students with disabilities are up slightly, and some states are succeeding in closing the gap relative to all students. However, more needs to be done to help students with disabilities succeed at rates comparable to their non-disabled peers.

We can’t afford to let our students with disabilities languish behind others. What can we learn from the states who are raising their graduation rates and narrowing the gap for students with disabilities? How can IDEA be improved to help public schools achieve better outcomes for students with disabilities? We owe it to our students and our schools to find ways to do better.

Carol Cohen is former director of NSBA's Center for Public Education.


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