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Inclusion, Career and Technical Education Help Students With Disabilities

project_search_blog.jpgStudents with disabilities who spend at least 80 percent of their school day in general education courses have higher rates of on-time graduation, college attendance, and employment than students with disabilities who are similar in other ways, but who spend less time in general education, according to a new study.

The same study found that students with disabilities are also more likely to graduate on time and find jobs if they took four or more credits of career and technical courses in high school, compared to similar peers who took fewer such courses. 

The findings support a policy push for greater inclusion and toward encouraging students to focus on a career-and-technical course of study if they're interested. The vast majority of students with disabilities who were tracked in this research had taken at least one career-and-technical education course by the time they were seniors. But being enrolled in an individual CTE course in a given grade didn't affect postsecondary outcomes for students, the study found.

Taking a concentration of CTE classes, in contrast, was less common. Only about a third of the students tracked had taken four or more credits of such courses over the course of their high school careers, the researchers found.

The report, titled Career and Technical Education, Inclusion, and Postsecondary Outcomes for Students with Disabilities, was published in May by researchers working with the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. The CALDER report was based on a rich data set in Washington state, which follows children from preschool to college and beyond. This particular study tracked the outcomes of about 16,000 students with disabilities from 10th grade to one year past their expected graduation date.

Controlling For Differences Among Students With Disabilities

The researchers also tried to answer the question of whether differences among students are at the root of the various outcomes, and not the educational setting or the classes those students took. For example, one could say that students with disabilities who spend 80 percent or more of their day in general education have less severe disabilities than their peers—and having a less severe disability makes a student more likely to graduate on time and go to college.

But Roddy Theobald, a CALDER researcher and the lead author of this report, said he and his colleagues were able to account for many differences among students using the data set. For example, the researchers controllled for the type of disability as well as other factors, including absenteeism, race/ethnicity, gender, bilingual status, housing status, migrant status, English-language learning status, standardized test scores, and the district of enrollment.

There still could be other intangible differences that can't be controlled for, Theobald said. But the findings suggest that when compared to other students with disabilities who have the same type of background, students with disabilities do better after graduation if they are enrolled in more general education courses, or if they have taken a concentration of CTE courses,

Using 'Big Data' to Evaluate Special Education

Inclusion and CTE courses also had different effects on student performance. Inclusion is a stronger predictor for whether students with disabilities will graduate on time or enroll in college, compared to taking a concentration of CTE courses, though the concentration also provided a boost to students.  On the other hand, CTE concentration was found to be a stronger predictor of employment six months after graduation than inclusion was, though inclusion also was linked to greater job attainment.. 

The CALDER findings align with other research in the field, with the added benefit of being able to add a number of different controls to make the comparisons stronger. But Theobald said that he and his colleagues noted by how little research on students with disabilities uses these valuable statewide data sets. 

 "There's just been a tremendous push in the last 10  years to do large-scale research in students," Theobald said. "It's just striking how little of that research has focused on students with disabilities. It's a real untapped resource."

Photo: Project SEARCH intern Andrea Sorto, 19, left, helps nurse Lisa Whitmer care for 3-day-old Brooke Woods in the neonatal intensive care unit in 2015. Project SEARCH is a national program that provides work experience to high school students with disabilities.—Lexey Swall for Education Week-File


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