Andrew H., an 18-year-old young man with a disability, started working on video editing equipment as a contractor for Mississippi Power through a transition plan: a school-to-work program where Andrew works nine hours a week while attending high school as a full-time student. Today, many students like Andrew benefit from the embedding of career and technical education (CTE) in their transition planning.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into law in 1975 and reauthorized in 2004. It protects the rights of more than 6 million students with disabilities (approximately 13.5 percent of students) to receive a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment. IDEA also requires that schools assist students with disabilities to develop independent living skills and abilities essential to succeed in most of their life’s endeavors.

According to the law, every special education student must have an individualized education program (IEP), which is designed based on the student’s unique situation. The IEP creates an opportunity for teachers, parents, school administrators, related services personnel, and students (when appropriate) to work together to improve educational results. Transition planning is part of the IEP and is required to start when students turn 16. Many students begin this planning at age 14 or earlier, so that they have the time to build skills they will need as adults.

Special Ed Students in CTE

The Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) emphasizes the development of employability skills of all students through CTE programs, including special populations, such as individuals with disabilities. The number of high school students who participated in CTE did not experience significant change from 2008 to 2018 (approximately 7.6 million). However, during the same 10 years:

  • The number of IDEA students who enrolled in CTE at the secondary level increased by 73 percent from less than 500,000 in 2008 to more than 800,000 in 2018; and
  • Among the CTE secondary students, the percentage of IDEA students increased from 1 to 8 percentage points in 20 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Closing the Achievement Gap

Evidence shows that IDEA students benefit from CTE in terms of school completion and successful postsecondary life. Through these programs, students with disabilities develop independent living skills, including personal skills, workplace skills, and people skills.

Graduation rate. Recent federal data show that the public high school graduation rate nationwide is 85 percent, the highest it has been since the rate was first measured in 2011. However, in both 2017 and 2018, the average graduation rate of students with disabilities who participated in CTE reached 89 percent (ranging from 31 percent in California to 99 percent in Pennsylvania), only 6 percentage points below the average graduation rate of all CTE students.

Although there is a gap in graduation rates between IDEA students and general CTE students, research shows that students with disabilities who participated in CTE are more likely to have higher graduation rates than those who did not. In 2018, the graduation rate of IDEA students who participated in CTE:

  • Was the same as that of all CTE students (i.e., 96 percent or above) in 15 states; and
  • Reached the national public high school graduation rate (i.e., 85 percent or above) in over two-thirds of states.

Academic performance. Compared with a decade ago, students with disabilities who participated in CTE programs made significant progress in academic proficiency in 2018. States may have changed standards for academic attainment in reading and math over the decade from 2008 to 2018. However, it should be noted that: 

  • 12 states experienced an increase in the percentage of IDEA students in CTE who met proficiency levels in reading.
  • Eight states saw a percentage growth of IDEA students who enrolled in CTE and became proficient in math.
  • In Massachusetts, almost three out of four IDEA students in CTE met the state reading proficiency level in 2018.
  • In Florida, 45 percent of IDEA students in CTE met the state math proficiency level in 2018.

Career/college readiness. Students who have earned three or more sequential credits in any state-approved CTE program grades nine through 12 are expected to pass technical skill assessments that align with industry-recognized standards, if available and appropriate.

Among students who participated in CTE, the gap between IDEA students and other students in technical skill attainment is smaller than the gap in reading/math. The state-level data ( show that in 2018:

  • In eight states (Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Tennessee, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wisconsin), over 90 percent of students with disabilities who participated in CTE passed technical skill assessments;
  • In 13 states, 80 percent to 89 percent of students with disabilities who participated in CTE passed technical skill assessments; and
  • In 31 states, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the gap in the passing rate between IDEA students and all CTE students is no greater than 10 percentage points.

“Today, more than 1 million students are trapped in an education system that wasn’t built for them,” wrote Alia Wong in a 2016 Atlantic article titled “Escaping the Disability Trap.”

The data we analyzed show that IEP students in CTE not only have higher rates of high school completion and graduation, but also are more likely to be equipped with academic proficiency and employability skills. For school leaders, linking CTE to the transition planning of IEP students appears to be an effective way to help students out of the “disability trap” and close the achievement gap.

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