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The Negative Impact of Graduation Policies on Students with Disabilities and Other Vulnerable Populations

Under the ‘Every Student Succeeds Act,’ states and districts are required to intervene in high schools with on-time graduation rates lower than 67 percent. While that number is written in the law, what it means to graduate is not, leaving that up to states to determine.

New federal figures show that the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities across the nation is on the rise again. For the 2016-2017 school year, the graduation rate for those with disabilities reached 67.1 percent. That’s up from 65.5 percent the previous year and represents the sixth year in a row that the rate has increased.

The uptick for those with disabilities comes as the overall graduation rate for students across the country grew to 84.6 percent, a record high. However, students with disabilities (SWD) continue to graduate at rates far below their age/grade and peers. These numbers come from a report by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The agency’s annual report measures the number of high school students who earn a diploma within four years.

Data specific to SWD reflects significant variation across states, with a high of 83.8 percent in Arkansas and a low of 36.4 percent in Mississippi.

The Education Department has suggested that these disparities could be due at least in part to reporting differences.

Graduation Rate for Students with Disabilities Shows Improvement
( PDF, 26 KB, 2 pgs.)

The National Education Association membership has approved the following resolution(s) on high school graduation:

The National Education Association believes that public high schools should employ multiple graduation and promotion options and create partnerships with colleges, alternative schools, and vocational, career and technical programs. These options also serve as valid indicators of readiness for postsecondary opportunities

The National Education Association supports a free, appropriate public education for all students with disabilities in a least restrictive environment, which is determined by maximum teacher and parent/

guardian involvement. There must be a full continuum of placement options and services/delivery models available to students with disabilities. In order to implement federal special education legislation effectively, the Association recognizes that—

  • A fully accessible educational environment, using appropriate instructional materials, support services, and pupil personnel services, must match the learning needs of both students with and students without disabilities.
  • General and special education teachers; pupil personnel and related service providers; education support professionals; and administrators, parents/guardians, and students, as appropriate, must share in implementing the IEP. Prior to implementation, all necessary educational materials, professional development, and supportive services must be provided
  • Students with special needs must have appropriate testing options matching the processing disorders, motor skills, and/or academic developmental levels or language proficiency of those students to measure individual progress and proficiencies.
  • Limitations must be made in class size, caseloads, and/or workload of designated education and service providers, using methods such as weighted formulas, modified scheduling, and/or curriculum design to accommodate the demands of each IEP.

NEA Policy and Practice Recommendations

  • Improve graduation rate collection and data reporting
  • Advocate and promote policies and practices that reduce disparities such as early interventions, restorative practices and reduced suspensions and expulsions
  • Address inequities between low and high poverty school districts
  • Develop strategic, sustainable comprehensive support and improvement plans
  • Maintain high expectations for all students rather than lowering the bar
  • Ensure SWD an opportunity to learn material on which they are tested
  • Make high school graduation decisions based on multiple indicators of students’ skills and learning
  • Conduct ongoing research on the unintended consequences of graduation requirements such as high failure rates, grade-level retention and increased drop-out rates

Want to know more about supports for SWD, limited English proficiency and economically disadvantaged students? Visit



Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Raising High School Graduation Rates 2018 Annual Update
National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) United States Department of Education
National Education Association Handbook 2018