Academic journal article Exceptional Children

High School Graduation of Students with Disabilities: How Long Does It Take?

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

High School Graduation of Students with Disabilities: How Long Does It Take?

Article excerpt

With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB; 2006), high schools, districts, and states became accountable for measuring and reporting their graduation rates. After implementation of NCLB, stakeholders noticed considerable heterogeneity in how states estimated high school graduation rates (Mishel & Roy, 2006; National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities, NDPC-SD, 2008). To promote consistency, in October 2008 the U.S. Department of Education required that states establish a uniform definition of high school graduation rate by the 2011-2012 school year, for the purposes of accountability (34 CFR [section] 200.19[b][1]). This uniform rate--a 4-year adjusted cohort rate-estimates the percentage of students who enter high school in ninth grade and graduate within 4 years. Schools are responsible not only for the graduation of students in the aggregate, but also in disaggregated subgroups--including the subgroup of students with disabilities.

The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2006), however, provides different expectations for high school graduation of students with disabilities. IDEA assures students with disabilities the right to a "free appropriate public education," from age 3 through age 21 (34 CFR [section]300.101 [a]). To qualify for services under IDEA in high school, students must be diagnosed with one of 12 designated disabilities (34 CFR [section] 300.8[c]) and require special education services. The individualized education program (IEP) team determines a student's "transition decision" based on the individual student's needs by age 16. This decision includes goals for when the student will finish required courses and graduate. Once students graduate from high school they are no longer eligible to receive special education services under IDEA.

Therefore, NCLB expects students with disabilities to graduate within 4 years of entering high school; IDEA permits students with disabilities to receive services in high school through age 21. The reason for this discrepancy of expectations has to do with the different foundational intentions of the two pieces of legislation. IDEA serves students with disabilities through the provision of individualized services. NCLB, in contrast, serves all students by holding schools accountable for student performance. These different policy mechanisms generate differing expectations for the graduation of students with disabilities.

In an attempt to reconcile these differences, states may propose an extended-year graduation rate for particular subgroups who may need more time to graduate (U.S. Department of Education, 2008). Because IDEA provides services through age 21, students with disabilities are recognized implicitly as one such subgroup (Gewertz, 2009). Prior to the establishment of the uniform graduation rate, schools, districts, and policy makers did not explicitly consider duration in high school prior to graduation. As a result, little research exists to support policy makers who want to establish an extended-year graduation rate for purposes of accountability while still holding schools accountable for graduating their students with disabilities.

To build a foundation for understanding duration in high school until graduation, it is helpful to explore how long students spend in high school before graduating and whether duration in high school is different for students with different disabilities. Currently, there are various methodologies for measuring graduation rates, and these methodologies have a substantial limitation--they restrict the amount of time they allow for students to graduate. Examining time-to-graduation mitigates this limitation and allows policy makers and practitioners to consider the implication of duration in high school on graduation to develop an appropriate accountability mechanism.


Prior to the recent establishment of a uniform 4-year cohort graduation rate, schools were not required to measure or report how long students spent in high school. …

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