Graduation Rates: One Litmus Test Among Several that Matter for Students with Disabilities
Oct 20

Graduation Rates: One Litmus Test Among Several that Matter for Students with Disabilities

By Lauren Morando Rhim, Executive Director and Co-Founder

The nation’s high school graduation rate is one important data point that we use in the U.S. to help determine the overall success of students attending our schools. States started using a comparable calculation and reporting method called the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) in 2010-2011[i]. This week, President Obama announced that the U.S. has reached a new all-time high in graduating high school seniors at 82.3%. For students with disabilities, the graduation rate is 64.6%, which is an increase of 5.6% since 2011. Both are excellent developments.

For all students, including the 2.7 million enrolled in public charter schools, the upward trend in graduation is a sign that more students are being taught to state standards and meeting state graduation requirements. By all rights, if states will require schools to teach students to high standards and teachers will hold students to high expectations, the momentum and growth will continue. Yet, as the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools (NCSECS) shares in the celebratory moment and continues to promote and highlight best practices occurring in charter schools all over the country, we also know that within the charter sector and specifically for students with disabilities, several challenges remain. These challenges, while not unique to public charter schools, are clear indicators that real barriers exist to assure the equitable participation in and completion of a quality education for students with disabilities in charter schools.

The nation’s new general education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—includes a requirement that high schools failing to graduate two-thirds or more of their students (or fewer than 67%) must be identified in the [new] state accountability system as a school in need of comprehensive support and intervention.[ii] NCSECS supported the new accountability requirements as well as improvements to key charter provisions including: expanding opportunities for traditionally underserved students (e.g., students with disabilities); and, the requirement that any charter entity receiving federal grants must commit to recruit, enroll, retain and foster achievement for students with disabilities. The combination of these requirements can help support and expand the growth of graduation rates.

While we’re optimistic about the graduation rate, our findings in Fall 2015—as part of a secondary analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection 2011-12—showed that while the enrollment of students with disabilities may be going up in charter schools, disciplinary actions such as suspension and expulsion continue to disproportionately impact these students.[iii]  We know such actions exacerbate the graduation gap, especially as research and practice show that disciplinary actions result in inequities that potentially cannot be made up for during a child’s school career such as: a significant loss of instructional time; increased likelihood of contact with juvenile justice and later [their contact] with prison[iv] [v]. Districts, including charters that operate as districts, interested in closing the gap should examine their programs, identify the schools or programs that need support, and take advantage of the training and other research-based activities allowed under ESSA. The new graduation data confirm that meaningful improvement is possible and while it is valuable to pause and celebrate gains, we strive to promote the progress and ensure all students are the beneficiaries of high expectations in whatever school they choose to attend.

[i] To calculate the ACGR, states identify the “cohort” of first-time 9th graders in a particular school year, and adjust this number by adding any students who transfer into the cohort after 9th grade and subtracting any students who transfer out, immigrate to another country, or die. The ACGR is the percentage of the students in this cohort who graduate within four years. National Center on Education Statistics, retrieved at:

[ii]P.L. 114-95, Sec. 1111(c)(4)(D)(II), Every Student Succeeds Act, p.39, retrieved at:

[iii] Key Trends in Special Education in Charter Schools: A Secondary Analysis of the Civil Rights Data Collection 2011–2012 retrieved at:


[v] From the School Yard to the Squad Car: School Discipline, Truancy, and Arrest,” The Journal of Youth and Adolescence (2014)

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