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Challenges of Secondary Education and Transition Services for Youth with Disabilities

By David R. Johnson

Since the mid-1980s, the efficacy of public education programs overall has been challenged by policymakers, business leaders, professionals, and the general public. While these challenges initially focused on improving general education, there are now efforts to closely align special education programs with emerging general education reforms (e.g., Testing, Teaching and Learning, Elmore & Rothman, 1999; Educating One and All, McDonnell, McLaughlin, & Morison, 1997).

Several recent federal laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Amendments of 1997, School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994, the Improving America's Schools Act of 1994, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 have all promoted comprehensive strategies for improving public school programs for all students, including those from diverse, multicultural backgrounds and situations of poverty. These laws uniformly stress high academic and occupational standards; promote the use of state and local standards-based accountability systems; point to the need to improve teaching through comprehensive professional development programs; and call for broad-based partnerships between schools, employers, postsecondary institutions, parents, and others.

Students with disabilities have been directly affected by this legislation. With the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997, significant new requirements were put into place to ensure students greater access to the general education curriculum and assessment systems. These requirements have been reinforced strongly by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which requires that students with disabilities participate not only in assessments, but also in accountability systems. The purpose of these requirements is to ensure schools are held accountable for these students' access to the general curriculum, higher expectations, and improved learning. Requirements for students with disabilities to be included in state accountability systems and for measuring whether schools have achieved adequate yearly progress (AYP) have heightened the importance of access to the general curriculum for all students with disabilities.

The AYP requirements of NCLB are having and will continue to have a significant impact on public schools. Under the Title I requirements of NCLB, schools will be held accountable for student progress using indicators of AYP. These indicators include measures of academic performance and rates of school completion. Schools will be identified as needing improvement if their overall performance does not increase yearly, or if any of a number of sub-groups does not meet specified criteria. Students with disabilities are identified as one of the sub-groups whose performance will count towards assessment of AYP. If these students do not perform well, questions must be raised as to what incentives schools have to focus effort and resources on these youth.

The current reauthorization of IDEA is expected to retain the focus on high academic achievement and the inclusion of students with disabilities in state and local standards-based accountability systems. Further, discussions will continue to focus on effective strategies and interventions that help students develop other essential adult life skills through vocational education, training, community participation, and other means. Federal policy, research and demonstration, state and local initiatives, and other developments since 1975 have focused considerable effort on improving school and postschool results for youth with disabilities. This results-based policy ideology will no doubt continue as a major influence on both special education and general education throughout the current decade.

All of these influences have brought many challenges to state and local education and community service agencies nationwide. Several of these major challenges are identified and briefly discussed below, along with recommendation for educators, policymakers, and families.

Challenge 1: Promote Students' Self-Determination and Self-Advocacy

Self-determination is a concept reflecting the belief that all individuals have the right to direct their own lives. Students who have self-determination skills are more likely to be successful in making the transition to adulthood, including employment and community independence (Wehmeyer & Schwartz, 1997). Starting with the 1990 IDEA legislation, transition services must be based on students' needs and take into account students' interests and preferences. To accomplish this, students must be prepared to participate in planning for their future.

Several recommendations in relation to this challenge include:

Challenge 2: Ensure Access to the General Education Curriculum

To prosper and gain the knowledge and skills needed for success in a variety of settings, students with disabilities must have more than mere access to school buildings and placement in the least restrictive environment; they must have access to educational curricula and instruction designed to prepare them for life in the 21st century. This assumption was the basis, in part, for the requirements in IDEA '97 stipulating that states must provide students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum, including the identification of performance goals and indicators for these students, definition of how access to the general curriculum is provided, participation in general or alternate assessments, and public reporting of assessment results. Providing meaningful access to the general curriculum requires a multifaceted approach. Appropriate instructional accommodations constitute one piece of this picture (Elliott & Thurlow, 2000). Other elements include the specification of curriculum domains, time allocation, and decisions about what to include or exclude (Nolet & McLaughlin, 2000).

Strategies and recommendations related to this include:

Challenge 3: Increase the School Completion Rates of Students with Disabilities

School completion is one of the most significant issues facing special education programs nationally. The National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) found that approximately 36% of students with disabilities exited school by dropping out (Wagner et al., 1991). The NLTS data also revealed that risk factors such as ethnicity and family income are related to dropout rates, and that some groups of special education students are more apt to drop out than others. Of youth with disabilities who do not complete school, the highest proportions are students with learning disabilities (32%), and students with emotional/behavioral disabilities (50%) (Wagner, et al., 1991).

Several strategies to address this challenge are:

Challenge 4: Base Graduation Decisions on Meaningful Indicators, and Clarify Diploma Options

Requirements that states set for graduation can include completing Carnegie Unit requirements (a certain number of class credits earned in specific areas), successfully passing a competency test, passing high school exit exams, and/or passing a series of benchmark exams (Guy, Shin, Lee, & Thurlow, 1999; Johnson & Thurlow, 2003; Thurlow, Ysseldyke, & Anderson, 1995). Twenty-seven states have opted to require that students pass state and/or local exit exams to receive a standard high school diploma (Johnson & Thurlow, 2003). This practice has been increasing since the mid-1990s (Guy, et al., 1999; Thurlow, et al., 1995). States may also require any combination of these. Diversity in graduation requirements is complicated further by an increasingly diverse set of possible diploma options. In addition to the standard high school diploma, options now include special education diplomas, certificates of completion, occupational diplomas, and others.

The implications of state graduation requirements must be thoroughly understood, considering the potential negative outcomes students experience when they fail to meet state standards for graduation. The availability of alternative diploma options can have a considerable impact on graduation rates. However, the ramifications of receiving different types of diplomas need to be considered. Students who receive non-standard diplomas may find their access to postsecondary education or jobs is limited. However, it is important for parents and educators to know that if a student graduates from high school with a standard high school diploma, the student is no longer entitled to special education services unless a state or district has a policy about continued services under such circumstances. Most states do not have such policies.

The following recommendations apply in relation to this major challenge:

Challenge 5: Ensure Access to and Full Participation in Postsecondary Education and Employment

Young adults with disabilities continue to face significant difficulties in securing jobs, accessing postsecondary education, living independently, fully participating in their communities, and accessing necessary community services such as healthcare and transportation. As a result of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and other federal legislation awareness has grown regarding accessibility issues faced by youth with disabilities seeking postsecondary education, life-long learning, and employment (Benz, Doren & Yovanoff, 1998; Stodden, 1998; Johnson, Stodden, Emanuel, Luecking, & Mack, 2002). The number of youth in postsecondary schools reporting a disability has increased dramatically, climbing from 2.6% in 1978, to 9.2% in 1994, to nearly 19% in 1996 (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Gajar, 1992, 1998; Wagner & Blackorby, 1996). While this increase is encouraging, and while many colleges have increased their efforts to serve students with disabilities (Pierangelo & Crane, 1997), enrollment of people with disabilities in postsecondary education programs is still 50% lower than it is for the general population.

Gaps seen in postsecondary enrollment persist into adult employment (Benz et al., 1998; Blackorby & Wagner, 1996; Gilson, 1996), and are greater when comparing those with less educational attainment. Only 15.6% of persons with disabilities who have less than a high school diploma participate in today's labor force; the rate doubles to 30.2% for those who have completed high school, triples to 45.1% for those with some postsecondary education, and climbs to 50.3% for persons with disabilities who have at least four years of college (Yelin & Katz, 1994).

Recommendations to address this challenge include:

Challenge 6: Increase Informed Parent Participation in Planning and Decision-Making

Research has shown that parent participation and leadership in transition planning play an important role in assuring successful transitions for youth with disabilities (DeStefano, Heck, Hasazi, & Furney, 1999; Furney, Hasazi, & DeStefano, 1997; Hasazi, Furney, & DeStefano, 1999; Kohler, 1993; Taymans, Corbey, & Dodge, 1995). Much of the discussion in the research literature centers on the role of parents as participants in the development of their child's IEP. IDEA '97 requires that state and local education agencies notify parents and encourage participation when the purpose of a planned meeting is the consideration of transition services. Beyond the IEP process, family training and involvement in program design, planning, and implementation are significant factors leading to positive youth outcomes (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 1998).

Recommendations for increasing parent participation include:

Challenge 7: Improve Collaboration and Systems Linkages at All Levels

Effective transition planning and service depend upon functional linkages among schools, rehabilitation services, and other human service and community agencies. However, a number of factors have stood as barriers to effective collaboration, including (a) lack of shared knowledge and vision by students, parents, and school and agency staff around students' postschool goals and the transition resources necessary to support students' needs and interests; (b) lack of shared information across school and community agencies, and coordinated assessment and planning processes, to support integrated transition planning; (c) lack of meaningful roles for students and parents in the transition decision-making process; and (d) lack of meaningful information on anticipated postschool services needed by students and follow-up data on the actual postschool outcomes and continuing support needs of students that can be used to guide improvement in systems collaboration and linkages. Recommendations to overcome these barriers include:


Addressing the many challenges associated with transition will require that we engage a much larger audience in our discussions on how best to proceed. This process should include young people with disabilities; parents; general education teachers and administrators; community agency staff, including those who serve youth and adults without disabilities; postsecondary education programs; and employers. Achievement of needed improvements in secondary education and transition services will require a broad-based commitment to educating all stakeholders, and to promoting meaningful collaboration at all levels.


Note: This article is based on the publication entitled Current Challenges Facing the Future of Secondary Education and Transition Services for Youth with Disabilities, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota (revised 2003), available at



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David R. Johnson is Director of the Institute on Community Integration, and of the National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He may be reached at 612/ 624-1062 or


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Citation: Gaylord, V., Johnson, D.R., Lehr, C.A., Bremer, C.D. & Hasazi, S. (Eds.). (2004). Impact: Feature Issue on Achieving Secondary Education and Transition Results for Students with Disabilities, 16(3). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration. Available from


The print design version (PDF, 671 K, 36 pp.) of this issue of Impact is also available for free, complete with the color layout and photographs. This version looks the most like the newsletter as it was printed.

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