College enrollment rates among special-needs students have been flat for several years, while employment is ticking upward.

Share story

For decades the state has tracked what happens to its special-needs students after they leave high school. But to what end? What’s reasonable to expect for the kids with autism, learning disabilities like dyslexia or difficulty regulating emotions?

Nationally, graduation rates for special education students vary widely — from 22.5 percent in Mississippi to 80.4 in neighboring Arkansas. As is true for many education outcomes in Washington, we fall right in the middle, at 54.5 percent for the 2012-13 school year.

Graduation rates for students with special needs vary widely between states.
Credit: Education Week

But what about after graduation?

Washington polls its former special-needs students, and last month released the most recent results: Of 5,354 disabled youth who left high school in 2012-13 and responded to the state’s survey, only 24 percent were enrolled in college one year later, a rate no better or worse than two years before.

Another 28 percent, about 1,500 students, reported that they were employed, which was a slight uptick from those with solid jobs in 2010-11.

But 35 percent, or nearly 2,000 young adults, were neither employed nor enrolled in school. More than 1,700 had dropped out prior to graduation.

Douglas Gill, the state’s assistant superintendent for special education, characterized those figures as “maintenance” — neither a drastic regression nor anything to celebrate.

“We’d always like to see improvement to where only 5 percent of kids aren’t engaged after high school, but I don’t know how realistic that is,” he said.

Washington public schools educate about 160,000 students who qualify for special services.

Gill said he’s pushing for the rate of unenrolled-and-unemployed special-needs students to drop by 10 points in next year’s survey. Increasing vocational education electives, he said, could make that happen.

“Employment is sort of the ultimate goal for all of us,” he said, “and reading an instruction manual is a whole lot different than reading the Canterbury Tales.”