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Journal Issue: Special Education for Students with Disabilities Volume 6 Number 1 Spring 1996

Transition from High School to Work or College: How Special Education Students Fare
Mary M. Wagner Jose Blackorby

Postschool Goals of Young People with Disabilities

In interpreting the outcomes of young people with disabilities in their early postschool years, it is important to have an understanding of what they hoped to achieve. What goals did students have for after high school?11 Examining their intended postschool paths provides an appropriate yardstick against which to assess the outcomes they achieved.

The majority of high school students with disabilities intended to enter the workforce upon leaving school.12 In many ways, high school was a difficult academic environment for students with disabilities,5 and the world of work may have offered them a wider variety of activities at which they could succeed. Among 12th-graders with disabilities, more than half (56%) had a goal of finding competitive employment after leaving high school, 10% had a goal of obtaining supported employment,13 and 2% sought sheltered work.13 Even among those who did not intend to go to work immediately, training for work held dominance over academic pursuits. More than one-fourth of 12th-graders with disabilities (28%) had a goal of postsecondary vocational training, compared with 23% having college attendance as their postsecondary goal. Only among youths with speech or sensory impairments did one-third or more students have college attendance as their postschool goal. Given the prevalence of employment-oriented goals, one would expect to see students with disabilities pursuing vocational programs with greater emphasis than college-preparatory academic programs, an expectation born out in the course-taking experiences of many high school students with disabilities.

Secondary School Education and Training

Young people with disabilities who graduated from high school on average earned 22 high school credits, as did high school graduates with no identified disabilities.14 Twelve of the credits earned by graduates with disabilities were in academic subjects,15 somewhat fewer than the fifteen credits earned by students in the general population.14 Reflecting their emphasis on vocational goals, the average secondary school student with disabilities earned five credits in vocational education, one more than typical high school students. One credit was earned in a life skills course, and the remaining four credits were earned in other subjects, such as physical education or the arts. With the exception of high school graduates with mental retardation or multiple disabilities, this pattern of credits earned did not vary significantly for students with different kinds of disabilities, largely due to the standardization imposed on high school course taking by state and school district graduation requirements.

Although virtually all high school students with disabilities spent the majority of their class time taking academic courses, few of them took courses that were indicative of college-preparatory programs.16 For example, graduates with disabilities averaged 2.5 credits in mathematics, only marginally less than the 2.9 credits earned by typical high school students.14 Yet, throughout four grades of high school, only 12% of students with disabilities had taken any advanced mathematics (which includes algebra, geometry, trigonometry, or calculus), courses often required for college entrance. Similarly, only 18% of students with disabilities had taken a foreign language at any time in high school. Further, only 7 of the 12 academic credits earned by graduates with disabilities as a group were in regular education academic courses. Special education courses may have conferred different kinds or levels of preparation for postsecondary education and other adult roles than courses taken in regular education.

Yet, these aspects of academic course taking varied widely for students with different kinds of disabilities. For example, among students with visual impairments, 51% took advanced mathematics at some time in high school, and 62% took a foreign language, reflecting the fact that postsecondary education was a more common intention among these students than among students with disabilities as a whole. Further, 13 of the 15 academic credits earned by students with visual impairments were in regular education classes, suggesting that more of their high school course work was comparable to that of typical students than was true for students with disabilities as a whole.

In addition to academic courses, virtually all students with disabilities (99%) who stayed in high school for four grade levels took some kind of vocational education during that time.17 However, many fewer (34%) took a "concentration" of vocational education—that is, four or more semester courses in the same skill area (for example, auto repair or computer programming). Most students (62%) took one or more survey courses—that is, beginning courses in a content area, with little or no follow-up in the same area to more fully develop the skills needed for employment in that field.

Vocational concentration was most common for students with learning disabilities (40%) and speech impairments (30%). It was least common for those with multiple (16%) or visual impairments (19%). However, these groups had different explanations for having relatively few vocational concentrators. As noted previously, students with visual impairments were the most likely to be taking college preparatory classes; vocational courses may have been inconsistent with their college ambitions, and there may have been little room in their schedules to include them. In contrast, students with multiple disabilities were among the most severely impaired and may not have had the functional abilities to pursue advanced skill training in many vocational areas.

Vocational concentration also was significantly more common among male students than among females (40% versus 23%; p ‹ 0.001) and among white students than among African-American students (38% versus 16%; p ‹ 0.001). The extent to which these differences reflect differences in the preferences and goals of students and/or differences in the resources or programs available to them is unclear. Trade and industry was the most popular skill area among male vocational concentrators, 81% of whom concentrated in that skill area, whereas 62% of female students with disabilities who had a concentration in vocational education did so in office occupations. Virtually all students (92%) who concentrated in vocational education took those courses as regular education classes. More than one-third of students with disabilities (38%) combined their vocational instruction with a work-study program; however, the majority of that work experience was school based, rather than community based.

Dropping Out of High School

The discussion thus far has considered the secondary school training of students with disabilities who had stayed in high school through four grade levels. They exited high school with a diploma, 22 credits, and a mixed bag of academic and vocational experiences. However, these students were fewer than 60% of those with disabilities who started high school: 30% of exiters from secondary school with disabilities dropped out of high school; another 8% dropped out before ever reaching high school.18 Among those who started high school but did not finish, the average age was 18 at the time of school leaving. Thus, dropouts with disabilities stayed in school as long as most of their peers who graduated, but at the time they left, they had earned only an average of 10 credits, fewer than half of the credits they needed to graduate.

This poor record of credits earned resulted from repeated course failure on the part of many students with disabilities. At the time they entered high school, more than three-fourths of students with disabilities were at least a year older than their age peers, indicating that they may have been retained at grade level at some earlier point in their school careers. During four grade levels of high school, 64% failed at least one course. Course failure was found in the NLTS analyses to be among the strongest predictors that students would eventually drop out of school.5 Course failure and dropping out were most common for students with serious emotional disturbances, among whom more than three-fourths failed a course in high school and almost half dropped out. In contrast, among deaf students, 44% failed one or more courses, and 11% dropped out.