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THE HIGH SCHOOL DROPOUT DILEMMA AND SPECIAL EDUCATION STUDENTS: New Report Examines Benefits for Special Education Students Who Earn a Diploma Compared to Those Who Do Not

“The social and economic consequences of dropping out are a serious problem not only for young people who received special education services, but also for their families, schools, communities, and society as a whole.”

Similar to the advantages that non–special education high school graduates possess over high school dropouts, special education students who earn a high school diploma are more likely to attend a postsecondary institution, secure meaningful employment, and avoid the criminal justice system than special education students who leave high school without a diploma, according to a new report from the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

“The social and economic consequences of dropping out are a serious problem not only for young people who received special education services, but also for their families, schools, communities, and society as a whole,” the report notes. “Although these problems are similar to those experienced by their peers who did not receive special education services, they seem to be more pronounced for special education students.”

The report, The High School Dropout Dilemma and Special Education Students, finds that approximately 13 percent of all special education students aged fourteen to twenty-one who exited school during the 2008–09 school year did so by dropping out or moving without continuing their education. The report acknowledges several problems with determining a dropout rate for special education students, but finds that the dropout rate for special education students tends to be higher than the rate for non–special education students based on a study of ten states with comparable data.

The report is able to determine dropout rates within different disability categories. It finds that students with emotional disturbance (20.7 percent) have much higher dropout rates than all other special education students, while those with autism (8.5 percent), deaf-blindness (11.7 percent), visual impairments (8.2 percent), hearing impairments (8.1 percent), speech-language impairments (8.4 percent), and orthopedic impairments (11.7) had much lower rates.

Upon examining benefits that special education graduates enjoy over their counterparts who fail to earn a diploma, the report finds that the personal costs of dropping out among special education students are enormous and can far exceed the challenges encountered by non–special education students who drop out. For example, up to two years out of high school, 56 percent of special education dropouts had been arrested and 34 percent had been on probation or parole, compared with 19 percent and 16 percent of special education high school graduates. Additionally, the report finds that 39 percent of special education graduates enrolled in some kind of postsecondary education institution within two years after leaving high school—more than four times the enrollment rate of dropouts (9 percent).

The report finds that the reasons special education students drop out are often similar to those of students in the general population. “Dropping out is influenced by an array of factors related to the student’s social background, educational experiences, and community setting in which he or she resides,” the report reads. “It is a gradual process of disengagement from school that includes reduced participation, less successful outcomes, and reduced sense of identification and belonging, culminating in the student’s early departure from school.” However, the report also finds that special education students are less likely to drop out if they spend more time in general education classes, receive tutoring services, and are in schools that maintain high expectations for academic achievement and school completion.

The complete report is available at

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