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."