Academic and Participation Profiles of School-Age Dropouts with and without Disabilities

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Recognition of learning disabilities (LD) and emotional or behavioral disorders (EBD) as life-long conditions (Carson, Sitlington, & Frank, 1995; Polloway, Smith, & Patton, 1984; Unger, 1997) has led to interest in the experiences of students in secondary school and beyond. Profiles of successful adults with LD or EBD have shown that either disability can have negligible effects after leaving school. At least in the case of learning disabilities, the resolve and skill of individuals can help to compensate for potentially negative consequences of the condition (Reiff, Ginsberg, & Gerber, 1995). The severity of a disability is also likely to influence experiences (Reiff et al.; Sitlington & Frank, 1990), as are the ways in which it is manifested (Gerber, 1998). In some instances, the severity or manifestation of the disability becomes reduced as adolescents mature into adults (Reis, Neu, & McGuire, 1997). But still, overall evidence of the life experiences of adults with LD or EBD reflects limited quality in relationships and socialization, economic independence, and academic achievement (admittedly, such data are skewed in representation because, typically, only those who present difficulties become identified as having the disabilities).

Young adults (approximately aged 16-21) with LD or EBD are generally dissatisfied with their own preparedness for independence. Many report lacking confidence in their academic and work skills, self-esteem, and control of their lives (Rumberger, 1987). This perspective is common among school dropouts. While individuals sometimes experience a sense of relief once they drop out, they typically report apprehension about their preparation for economic, academic, and social independence beyond school. Such apprehension is not unwarranted, given that school dropouts generally have lower academic skills than high school graduates (Alexander, Natriello, & Pallas, 1985). Even among employment options suitable for individuals without a high school credential or no higher, those who drop out and have a mild disability have been disadvantaged in competitive employment markets (Baxter, 1992; Okolo & Sitlington, 1988; Schwartz, 1995; Sitlington & Frank, 1990; White, Schumaker, Warner, Alley, & Deshler, 1980). Perceptions and evidence about the preparedness of dropouts with LD or EBD are consistent with typifying information about their in-school experiences.

Since Warner, Schumaker, Alley, and Deshler (1980) first reported on the limited academic skills of adolescents with LD, little appears to have changed (see also Schumaker, Deshler, Alley, & Warner, 1983). While more adolescents with LD are being included in the mainstream of schools (those with EBD are comparatively more likely to be placed outside of inclusion settings [Long, 1994; U.S. Department of Education, 1999]), recent findings from the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) and the National Longitudinal Transitions Study of Special Education Students (NLTS) indicate average skill levels and consequent school outcomes have not changed much (Vogel & Reder, 1998; Wagner, D'Amico, Marder, Newman, & Blackorby, 1992). Similar findings of consistently low performance across age levels have been reported for students with EBD (Hechtman & Weiss, 1985; Kauffman, 1997). Some have theorized that the difficulties of participating and succeeding in school for these students are significant factors in their dropping out (Reiff et al., 1995; Roderick, 1993; Sinclair, Christenson, Evelo, & Hurley, 1998).

In comparison to an overall national dropout rate of approximately 12% (Kaufman, Kwon, Klein, & Chapman, 1999), those students with LD have recently estimated dropout rates ranging from 17% to 42% and those with EBD have even higher dropout rates, estimated to be from 21% to 64% (Lichtenstein & Zantol-Wiener, 1988; National Center for Education Statistics, 1993, 1997, 1999). …