Students with disabilities tend to drop out of high school at higher rates than their classmates, so dropout prevention efforts might seem like one obvious step to provide the supports these students need in order to earn a diploma. However, a closer look at the data reveals that students with certain disabilities actually tend to stay in high school longer than four years — dropping out at relatively low rates but also not graduating on time. Efforts focused on keeping these students in school might not be the most effective way to help them complete school successfully.

“Looking at students with disabilities as a single group can be very misleading when trying to create dropout prevention supports and interventions,” says BethAnn Berliner, Senior Researcher at WestEd, who focuses on school- and community-based interventions for school success. “There’s such wide variation in dropout and graduation outcomes across the disability categories. The interventions must be more targeted to what’s really going on.”

To begin building the knowledge needed to target interventions more effectively, Vanessa X. Barrat, a WestEd Senior Researcher, and Berliner have been leading an effort by the Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West) to disaggregate key outcome data on students with disabilities. Their research, summarized in reports such as School Mobility, Dropout, and Graduation Rates Across Student Disability Categories in Utah, highlights important variations and some surprising patterns.

Disaggregating data by disability category

The term “students with disabilities” is a broad umbrella. It covers the approximately 5.7 million students who receive special education services in the United States. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) defines 13 different disability categories, such as learning disability, deafness, autism, emotional disability, and many others.

Rather than focusing on each of these distinct categories, most research on dropout and graduation rates has compared outcomes for students with disabilities, as a single group, against the outcomes of their general education peers. Very little research has been done to illuminate just how these education outcomes differ across the disability categories and, therefore, how policies and practices might best address students’ particular needs.

The REL West research, led by Barrat’s and Berliner’s work to disaggregate data from public schools in Utah, has begun to fill in this knowledge gap. Looking at outcomes for each disability category, the researchers have analyzed data on mobility, dropout, and over-age enrollment in grades 6–12, and have analyzed dropout and graduation rates for a cohort of students in grades 9–12. Findings compared the outcomes for students in each disability category and those for general education students.

Findings reveal varied needs

The REL West research showed that even though students with disabilities, as a group, are more academically vulnerable than their general education classmates, the education outcomes of students in some disability categories closely mirror those of the general education population, while education outcomes of students in other disability categories are far worse than those of the general education population. Some disability categories have unexpected results, such as low dropout rates and low graduation rates.

4-year High School Outcomes

“One thing we show is that some students, depending on the disability category, drop out at half the rate of general education students, and some drop out at twice the rate,” says Barrat. “They have very different needs, dropout rates, and graduation rates. It’s not obvious that their needs can be addressed with a blanket approach.”

More specifically, findings from the REL West report focused on Utah include the following:

  • Dropout rates for high school students with disabilities ranged from 11 percent for students with autism to 44 percent for students with emotional disturbance, highlighting that — depending on the disability category — the dropout rate could be considerably below or far above the general education population’s average dropout rate of 21 percent. For students with emotional disturbance, dropping out was the most prevalent outcome after four years of high school, even more prevalent than graduating (43 percent).
  • As a group, students with disabilities had graduation rates nearly 20 points lower than the 78 percent graduation rate for general education students. A closer look, however, revealed that students with speech or language impairment graduated at rates nearly on par with the general population, whereas students with autism, emotional disturbance, or intellectual disability had graduation rates below 50 percent, and students with multiple disabilities had the lowest graduation rate of all, at just 16 percent.
  • Students with autism, intellectual disability, or multiple disabilities had both low graduation rates and low dropout rates compared to the general education population’s averages. A large percentage of students in these disability categories were continuing students — that is, students who stayed enrolled in high school beyond four years without dropping out or graduating.
  • Students in all disability categories were more likely to be over-age in grade 12. Two subgroups — students with intellectual disability and students with multiple disabilities — were almost always older than expected in high school, yet also very unlikely to drop out.
  • In grades 6–12, students with emotional disability had the highest annual mobility rate, changing schools at nearly four times the rate of general education students, on average.

Using data to better address student needs

The Utah report “emphasizes the injustice done when students with disabilities are aggregated as one large, homogeneous group,” says WestEd’s Katherine Bradley-Black, who co-leads the Graduation and Post-School Outcomes Cross-State Learning Collaborative of the National Center for Systemic Improvement.

Individualizing education to match students’ needs is a fundamental concept in IDEA, notes Bradley-Black, and the REL West research highlights the value of understanding how the needs of students with disabilities vary across disability categories. “While we can sometimes make broad assumptions about the characteristics of certain disabilities, we need to be very careful resting on those assumptions,” she says.

“Looking at disaggregated data helps you begin to anticipate the kinds of support that particular youth are going to require.”

Loujeania Bost, co-author of a recent article on “Dropout Prevention in Middle and High Schools: From Research to Practice,” has drawn on the REL West research in her work as Co-Director of the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition, based at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Looking at disaggregated data helps you begin to anticipate the kinds of support that particular youth are going to require by virtue of the nature of their disabilities,” she says.

In her work with state and local leaders, Bost says, “we’ve begun to look particularly at youth with behavioral or emotional disturbance, as they experience some of the poorest outcomes. There is some predictability in their graduation and dropout rates, so what kind of protective factors can we put into place in schools and at the state level to shift those outcomes?” She notes that supports might include hiring and training coaches to work with teachers and students, providing funds to local groups to develop initiatives focused on the needs identified by research, and enacting policies that encourage evidence-based practices.

What’s next

Bost and Bradley-Black both point to the need for more research along the lines of REL West’s disaggregating data on the education outcomes of students with disabilities. For example, Bost would like to see research that uses “core predictors” of which students are most likely to drop out or not graduate to match students with interventions targeted to those particular groups. She is especially interested in research that digs into how problems and solutions might differ “across settings, populations, and configurations of students” — comparing urban against rural settings, for example.

Barrat notes that others in the field have also expressed interest in knowing what happens to the students with disabilities who tend not to drop out but also do not graduate after the standard four years of high school. She is leading a study to look into this issue, examining data on six-year dropout and graduation outcomes, disaggregated by disability category, as well as updating some of the findings from the earlier REL West report.

Bradley-Black says she values the REL West research for helping educators “better understand what is truly happening for students with disabilities. It serves as a model to remind people of the need to take a deep dive into data in order to specifically identify root causes, a necessary step toward determining the interventions and resources that will be most effective for supporting those students most in need.”