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Diplomas Elusive for Many Students With Learning Disabilities

A state-by-state analysis of the most recent data on graduation rates for students with learning disabilities shows that while more of those students have been leaving high school with a standard diploma, many states are struggling to reach the national graduation rate average of 68 percent for students in that disability category.

Students with learning disabilities—dyslexia, dyscalculia, or auditory or visual processing disorders, for example—make up about 41 percent of the students who are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The New York-based National Center for Learning Disabilities combed through the data collected by the federal government on students with disabilities to produce a report called "Diplomas at Risk," which argues that despite improvement over the years, far too many students with learning disabilities, or SLDs, are dropping out of school or being shunted to an alternative certification path that leads to something other than a standard diploma.

"While things are moving in the right direction, we don't think we're moving in the right direction fast enough," said Candace Cortiella, the director of the Advocacy Institute and the report's author. "Some states have significant problems that need to be addressed."

The "Diplomas At Risk" page on the NCLD website will get you to the report after a free registration process. Registration will also allow the organization to invite you to a webinar discussing the findings at noon EST tomorrow.

Digging Into the Data

The exit data collected on students with disabilities includes only those who were covered by the IDEA when they left high school. Students who transferred into general education are not included in the calculation, even if they received special education services for most of their school career. The most recent data is for the 2010-11 school year.

The 68 percent rate of students leaving high school with a standard diploma marks an increase from 57 percent in the 2001-02 school year. But 17 states were below the 68 percent national average. Nevada, at 25 percent, had the lowest rate of SLDs earning a regular diploma.

Nationwide, the dropout rate for SLDs was 19 percent. But 22 states had dropout rates higher than the national average; South Carolina, at 49 percent, had the highest dropout rate.

Many states allow students with disabilities to leave school with some sort of completion document that does not meet the same requirements as a standard diploma. In Mississippi, the percentage of SLDs earning an alternative certification approached 60 percent.

The report also calculated graduation rates using the new "adjusted cohort graduation rate," which the U.S. Department of Education required for the first time in 2010-11. While students with disabilities are calculated separately for the purposes of comparison, they are not broken out by disability categories. States also have different ways of deciding who counts as a student with a disability, making comparisons across states difficult.

However, the calculations showed a wide graduation gap in some states—in Mississippi, for example, 75 percent of all students earned a diploma under this measurement, compared to 23 percent of students with disabilities, a gap of 52 percentage points. In South Dakota, the graduation rate for all students matched the rate for students with disabilities, at about 83 percent.

Recommendations for Policymakers

The report offered several possible explanations for the graduation rate disparities. For example, schools may decide as early as elementary school to take a student off a regular diploma track. States with multiple high school completion options also tended to be states that had a lower percentage of SLDs earning regular diplomas.

The NCLD said that states should consider limiting how many alternate certification paths are available. Other policy recommendations were to use the adjusted cohort rate for students by disability category, to enable more accurate tracking of the issue. States should also create incentives for school districts to tackle graduation rate disparities, the report says.

And districts need to avoid steering students into paths that lead to less exposure to the general curriculum, said Laura Kaloi, the public policy director for the NCLD.

"In some states, you can decide as early as 2nd or 3rd grade whether to go into an alternate assessment. You're making a decision very early that THE?--MB child will not have full access to the general curriculum," she said. Students with learning disabilities "absolutely should be part of the regular classroom, with the support and services they need."

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