Students with Disabilities More Likely to Drop out of High School

Graduation rates significantly lower for students with disabilities. Organizations and schools are employing strategies to keep them on the same track as their peers.


Students with disabilities are lagging behind their able-bodied peers when it comes to high school graduation. As the U.S. is on track to reach 90 percent graduation rates by 2020, students with disabilities only graduate at a rate of 61.9 percent, according to the 2015 Building a Grad Nation Report released by the America’s Promise Alliance.

This outlook is grim, especially considering that students with disabilities account for approximately 13 percent of all public school students nationwide. But since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 25 years ago, some steps have been taken in an attempt to increase graduation rates.

When the ADA was passed in 1992 there was a shift in the percentage of time students with disabilities spent in special education versus general education classes with their able-bodied peers. The first school year of the 1990s saw the majority of students with disabilities splitting their school days between general and special education. But within just 10 years, almost half of students with disabilities were spending 80 percent or more of their time integrated in general classes. As of June 2013, that populace makes up over 60 percent, while less than 15 percent of students with disabilities spent 60 percent of the day in special education classes. Overall, 87 percent of students with disabilities have at least one general education class.

Mainstreaming students with disabilities while also giving them access to resource rooms to address their specific needs has proven to be beneficial for these students — not only educationally but in other facets of life as well, according to an article posted on Concordia Online Education’s special education site: “By using both the regular classroom and individualized time in special education classes, pupils are exposed to mainstream students but get the attention they need for their specific challenges. Several studies have suggested that overall, including disabled children in mainstream classrooms improves academic achievement, self-esteem and social skills.”

With the understanding of the needs of students with disabilities by the principal, there are plenty of benefits for this populace who are in the general education track if the school assigns proper support, including proper training of their staff development programs and installing policies and procedures for monitoring individual student progress.

The Building a Grad Nation report emphasizes how individual state requirements make a big difference. According to the report, states like Iowa, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska and New Jersey all have graduation rates higher than 87 percent. States with the lowest graduation rates include Mississippi, Nevada and Georgia, all of which have an average lower than 35 percent for students with disabilities — a significant difference.

The National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities (NDPC-SD) is leading the initiative to improve the chances for this populace to obtain a high school diploma. To do this, the organization set out to increase awareness among policymakers, administrators and practitioners about dropout prevention, reentry and school completion. They seek to work with State Education Agencies and Local Education Agencies to set performance targets, improve data systems to track students at risk of dropping out and create effective programs to help students with disabilities succeed.

One of the initiatives NDPC-SD spearheaded is a report called “Reentry Programs for Out-of-School Youth with Disabilities.” This report was designed for state departments of education and school districts as they initiate efforts to help students with disabilities return to the public school system and graduate. This includes open houses on how to further education; multimedia communication campaigns to keep students informed of reenrollment programs; and partnerships with charter schools, community colleges and for-profit businesses to give students flexible ways for credit restoration.

The Building a Grad Nation Report provides recommendations to keep students with disabilities from dropping out: “Establish a standard diploma that is available to all students, and limit exit options that prematurely take students with disabilities off track to graduating on time with a standard diploma.” The report also suggests that, in order to keep school policies and records consistent across the board, “The U.S. Department of Education should establish a clear definition of the students who are included in the students with disabilities category of the ACGR to be used in all states” and that “[s]tates, not individual school districts, should set and clarify the allowances they intend to grant students with disabilities to earn a standard diploma.”





  • as long as lawyers are in control of special education, and not educators, parents, and students themselves, nothing will change.

  • Betty Pizarro

    This news about the current state of children with special needs, greatly sadden me. I raised two children have special needs – one was dyslexic and the other child who was adopted had severe emotional problems. However, my school district, West Contra Costa Unified School District, had a policy that every child “was gifted and talented” it was the community’s responsibility (both school and parents) to ensure that each child gift was recognized. And true to the statement within the article that

    “With the understanding of the needs of students with disabilities by the principal, there are plenty of benefits for this populace who are in the general education track if the school assigns proper support, including proper training of their staff development programs and installing policies and procedures for monitoring individual student progress.”

    I was blessed in that both children had wonderful and truly dedicated Principals who ensured that in each case, proper support and training was provided. I also must admit that by providing such services, which was a requirement of the Federal government, the schools received additional funds. And the PTA pushed for the additional funding because they also realized that the general student body would ultimately benefit.

    Perhaps the monetary factor can be highlighted to encourage school districts to participate – If not only, because it’s the right thing to do!!!!

  • Dale Reardon


    I publish an Australian website on disability issues at

    and was wondering if it might be alright to republish some of your blog posts including this one? I would give you credit and a link back of course and it would help spread your work.

    Let me know.


  • Addressing student disabilities is challenging for all school districts. Speaking with a friend who works as a teacher tells me school districts are aware of the shortcomings of qualified staff and resources specifically designed to meet student special needs. They are unable to meet those needs because they are either terribly underfunded, mismanagement of federal/state funds, and lack of qualified personnel within districts’ and local market demographics trained in special education. If the issues aren’t identified within early education years (Pre-K, Kindergarten), education analysts/professionals state children are already behind the learning curve.

    From a standpoint of efficiency it appears establishing and instituting Pre-K nationwide must be done staffing only 4 year degree college trained educated teachers with specialties in ESL and Special Education. Why this hasn’t been done is beyond me on a federal level and funded by the US Federal Government is beyond me?

    If you can spend $4-5 billion a month in Iraq for a few years, can’t see why Uncle Sam can’t do the same for it’s vulnerable citizens.

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