Roosevelt House Faculty Forum Posted on Thursday, April 06, 2017

Special Education and Diploma Tracks in High School: Methods of (Re)Segregation and Inequality in Outcomes

The achievement “gap” across race/ethnicity and disability extends beyond student performance on standardized tests to include disparate rates of high school graduation, which in turn adversely affect life options including higher education enrollment and employment. In the past two decades, education policies (e.g., No Child Left Behind Act/Every Student Succeeds Act) focused on addressing this “gap” through increased accountability standards for all students, teachers, schools, districts, and states have been ineffective. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that accountability systems that both reward and punish districts and schools based on single metric quantitative performance measures have the effect of exacerbating, or at a minimum masking, unequal outcomes for youth of color and students with disabilities. Educators and policymakers must be mindful of the unintended consequences of education policy implementation.

Specifically, federally required accountability reporting of performance on Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) indicators is linked to school resource allocation that may encourage districts to “creatively” calculate graduation rates (an area reported in AYPs). Furthermore, many states have expanded high school diploma options, which result in very different school trajectories for students. Despite these different trajectories, schools continue to report all graduation rates in one statistic regardless of diploma type. For example, Florida offers seven diploma options, only two of which reflect an actual standard diploma tied to assessment (FDOE, 2011). Florida has continued to report increases in graduation rates (from 59 percent in 2004 to 80 percent in 2016) but also increased the number of non-standard diploma for students with disabilities it awarded by 58 percent. The implication is that the state appears to be improving graduation rates for all students in AYP reporting, but students lose postsecondary options when they are tracked into non-standard diploma tracks, particularly the students of color who are overrepresented in special education.

Students of Color in Special Education

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs has reported overrepresentation of students of color in special education, notably in the subjective disability categories of intellectual disability (ID) and emotional disturbance (ED), for three decades. In recent years, African-American students are nearly three times as likely to be identified for special education services under the ID category and more than twice as likely to be identified in the ED category than other racial/ethnic student groups. These rates have changed little in the last three decades even though the U.S. Department of Education has monitored this issue in reauthorizations to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997, 2004, and 2016.

Of particular concern is that students of color placed in special education are frequently placed in more “restrictive” settings and separated from their peers in general education (Skiba et al., 2008). Thus, scholars have noted that although the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was six decades ago, “systematic tracking of African American students into remedial and special education programs” (Shealey, Lue, Brooks, & McCray, 2005, p. 115) continues.  Certainly, the proliferation of high school diploma options in the last several years can be linked to tracking practices in schools whereby youth of color are most often sorted into special education and remedial or general education classes that limit their access to advanced/accelerated high school courses and standard diplomas.

Graduation Rates: What the Numbers Don’t Reveal

Students with disabilities and students of color graduate high school at lower rates than white students or students without disabilities. Although improved in recent years, the national 4-year graduation rates in 2014 for all students was 82 percent; however, for African-American students, the graduation rate was 73 percent and for students with disabilities, 63 percent. However, these rates do not reveal a clear picture. A standard diploma linked to a high-stakes assessment (such as a Regent’s diploma in New York) is the gold standard for students who wish to attend college. A “passing” score is associated with the skills to be able to access college and other post-secondary options. Thus, it is critical to examine rates of standard diploma attainment for students of color and students with disabilities when we consider equitable outcomes as reflected in graduation rates. For example, research has demonstrated that students with disabilities and students of color are more likely to receive non-standard diplomas and that the rates of graduation with non-standard diplomas is increasing, particularly in states with high-stakes assessment tests (Gaumer Erickson, Kleinhammer-Tramill, & Thurlow, 2007). Several non-standard diploma options reflect achievement that leaves students vulnerable to not being able to demonstrate proficiency on college placement exams. Other non-standard diploma options, such as IEP diplomas, are not recognized by colleges at all.

In 2016, the New York State Department of Education announced in a press release that high school graduation “rates continue to rise with notable gains in urban districts.” This report was referring to the 4-year graduation rate of 78 percent for New York students. However, this report also noted that 88 percent of White students graduated, compared to 65 percent of African-American and Hispanic students and only 50 percent of students with disabilities.  A close look at diploma type reveals a larger gap and suggests that students of color and students with disabilities are not earning standard types of diplomas that will enable them optimal life choices.

It must also be noted that the pressure to report improvement in graduation rates has led many districts to exclude many students with disabilities from graduation rate reporting. New York City (one of the lauded urban districts demonstrating gains in the New York Department of Education press release) graduation rates excludes all students with disabilities served in District 75 and students served in any self-contained setting. This excludes 17 percent of all students served in special education in New York City from being reported in graduation rates. Thus, the reporting of graduation rates for students with disabilities in New York City includes only the higher performing students served in less restrictive settings (traditional classrooms) in special education, those that would likely be expected to obtain a standard diploma.  A breakdown of the 4-year graduation rates with diploma types attained across student groups in New York City in 2015 are below.

  • Regent’s diploma (any type): White 81 percent, African-American 59 percent, Hispanic 60 percent, students with disabilities 35 percent
  • Local diploma (non-standard diploma): White 1 percent, African-American 5 percent, Hispanic 4 percent, students with disabilities 17 percent
  • IEP diploma (non-standard diploma available only to students with disabilities): 5 percent all students with disabilities—0 percent of white students with disabilities
  • Dropped out: White 3 percent, African-American 10 percent, Hispanic 10 percent, students with disabilities 15 percent
  • Still enrolled in school (graduation not within 4 years): White 15 percent, African-American 30 percent, Hispanic 29 percent, students with disabilities 44 percent

Thus, the recent New York State Department of Education announcement in February 2017 that the 2016 high school graduation rates hit a “new high” of 79.4 percent should be viewed with some skepticism if one of the goals of increasing graduation rates is to provide more equitable outcomes for all youth, including students of color and students with disabilities. Further, a complementary statistic to graduation rates that should raise concern is the 51 percent of CUNY freshmen that require remediation and 79 percent of CUNY community college students who graduate from high school but fail reading and writing college placement exams (Logue, 2011). Therefore, we must take a critical perspective when examining data from high stakes accountability systems. Most importantly, we must continue to work across policy, research, and practice silos to address the opportunity gaps and systemic barriers to high quality school experiences that marginalized students face.



Florida Department of Education. (2011). Change, and Response to Change, in Florida Public Schools (Technical report). Tallahassee, FL: Author.

Gaumer Erickson, A., Kleinhammer-Tramill, P., & Thurlow, M. (2007). Ananalysis of the relationship between high school exit exams and diploma options and the impact on students with disabilities. Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 18(2), 117-128.

Logue, A. (2011). Testimony of Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost

The City University of New York, New York City Council Committee on Higher Education “Evaluating the Impact of College Remediation at Community Colleges and Other Postsecondary Institutions” October 24, 2011

Shealey, M., Lue, M., Brooks, M., & McCray, E. (2005). Examining the legacy of Brown: The impact on special education and teacher practice. Remedial and Special Education, 26, 113-121.

Skiba, R., Simmons, A., Ritter, S., Gibb, A., Rausch, M., Cuadrado, J., & Chung, C. (2008). Achieving equity in special education: History, status, and current challenges. Exceptional Children, 74 (3), 264-288.


This article is part of a series of faculty commentary around issues of equity and justice in education policy. Click here to read the full series.

Dr. Wendy Cavendish is currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute and Associate Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning in the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development. She joined the University of Miami faculty in 2007 after serving as research faculty at the Center for Criminology and Public Policy Research in the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University. Dr. Cavendish’s interdisciplinary research focus includes the practices and processes in schools and other social institutions (e.g., criminal justice system) that facilitate and support successful transition of youth both into and out of special education. Her work has been published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities, Journal of Special Education, Journal of Youth & Adolescence, Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, and Journal of Adolescence as well as numerous research reports and book chapters.