Transition Planning: Are We Failing 75% of Secondary Students with IEPs?

When doing a cursory review of transition planning-related companies and products, I found that over 90% of available curricula, assessments, tools, and interest inventories targeted students who would be categorized between moderate to severe on the disability continuum.  In large part, when we think of transition planning, we think of the importance of supporting students with more significant disabilities and IEPs to obtain employment following high school and preparing for assisted or independent living, functional skills, and navigating the real world after graduation.  For this purpose, the transition field of special education has engaged in strong research and the development of effective approaches, strategies, and tools to assist students with moderate to severe disabilities, primarily.  

Although you won’t find my next observation in any research papers or the archives of the IRIS Center, most practitioners of special education will readily admit that for students with mild to lower-moderate disabilities who intend on pursuing post-secondary education options, the transition process is often perfunctory, cursory, and very few resources, supports, or tools exist to help students prepare for this next journey – whether school or career-specific.  

It’s not as though general or special educators don’t care about these students and their potential challenges – they most certainly do.  The problem is that many educators see transition services and supports primarily for those students with mid-moderate to severe disabilities who will need considerable supports – functionally, fiscally, and personally – both prior to and following graduation from high school.

Unfortunately, the great majority of students with disabilities fall into the mild to lower-moderate range.  Although estimates vary, less than 25% of all students with disabilities fall into the mid-moderate to severe range.  Of course, this means that at least 75% of students with disabilities will fall into the mild to low-moderate range.  This would not be such an issue if the statistics following these students were not so alarming.

According to the IRIS Center, The National Longitudinal Study-2 (NLTS-2) data indicate that:

  • 19% of students with disabilities attended four-year colleges and universities, compared to 40% of students without disabilities. Students with disabilities are more likely to attend two-year colleges or vocational schools.
  • 35% of students with disabilities who enter four-year colleges and receive disability services from the college graduate, whereas 55% of students without disabilities graduate.
  • Students with disabilities continue to demonstrate poorer employment outcomes than do other young adults (e.g., fewer hours per week, lower salaries, reduced benefits).

With regard to this concerning data, the information above is merely the tip of the iceberg regarding deficits students with disabilities have in relation to their non-disabled peers pertaining to  high school drop-out rates, 2- and 4-year post-secondary non-completion rates, percentage of students not living independently, employment rates, and so on.  In my 20-plus years in secondary education and after attending 100’s of IEP meetings, I can say without credible contradiction and a strong degree of certainty that we are in large part not meeting either the legal requirements nor the spirit of the IDEA with regard to Transition Services and students with mild to low-moderate disabilities. This observation, of course, is consistent with the tremendous rise in FAPE and Transition-related state complaints and due process hearing filings.  Moving forward, the field of special education must first acknowledge our considerable shortfall in this area.  Without first acknowledging a problem exists, one cannot begin to fix the problem.