The Hechinger Report recently published an article discussing the potential of students with disabilities to earn high school diplomas.  The story was particularly interesting to us, because it highlighted that Arkansas has the nation’s highest graduation rate for students with disabilities.  Over 81 percent of students with disabilities in the class of 2015 graduated, compared to the national average reported rate of under 65 percent.


While this news is exciting (we love to be the best!), we have to wonder: what is the reason for our high graduation rates? Data from the Arkansas Department of Education show that the graduation rate for students with disabilities has been over 80 percent since 2013,  with the 2016 rate reflecting a new high of over 84 percent!

We examine three possible reasons for Arkansas’s high graduation rate for students with disabilities:

  1. The students in Arkansas have less severe disabilities than students in other states.
  2. Schools in Arkansas do a great job at educating students with disabilities.
  3. Students with disabilities in Arkansas can earn a diploma by meeting easier requirements than students in other states.

Do students in Arkansas have less severe disabilities?

Arkansas and Mississippi are close geographically, have about 500,000 students enrolled in the public school system, and a similar the percentage of students enrolled are eligible for free/reduced lunch, which is often used as a proxy for student poverty.

Although student populations are similar, however, the graduation rates for students with disabilities are not. Mississippi has the second lowest graduation rate in the nation, (30.7 percent in 2015-16) for students with disabilities.  Table 1 shows the 2015 special education enrollments by disability for Arkansas and Mississippi.  The low-incidence disabilities, which are generally considered more severe disabilities, are presented in bold.

Table 1. Students in special education by disability, Arkansas and Mississippi.


Although Arkansas enrolls a higher percentage of students with intellectual disabilities than Mississippi,  the developmental delay category that Mississippi uses (usually for pre-k) is likely offsetting the intellectual disability rates. Overall, differences between the disabilities identifies for students in Mississippi and Arkansas are slight, providing no plausible explanation for the 50 percentage point difference in graduation rates between the two states. Students in Arkansas do not seem to have less severe disabilities.

Are Arkansas students better prepared?

Arkansas’s high graduation rates for students with disabilities could be a reflection of the the quality education in schools in Arkansas are providing.  The only measure publicly available to us, aside from graduation rates, on how well schools are serving students with disabilities academically is through standardized assessments.  We’ll preface this by noting that no one in the special education community thinks that test scores are great measures for students with disabilities because of the variety of problems students with disabilities run into taking assessments.  Nevertheless, the graduation rate, math proficiency, and English language arts (ELA) proficiency rates for students with disabilities in Arkansas and all students in the state in Table 2, below.

Table 2. Graduation and ACT Aspire proficiency rates in math and ELA, Arkansas, 2016.


While there is less than a 3 percentage point difference in graduation rates, there is a 30 and 38 percentage point difference in math and ELA proficiency, respectively.  Although there are large differences in academic performance, Arkansas schools are graduating students with disabilities at almost the same rate as their non-disabled peers.

However, as noted above, test scores are not great measures of the educational experience provided to special education students. Thus, it is certainly possible that part of the explanation for the high graduation rate for special education students in Arkansas is the quality of service provided or the attention paid to special education students in the state. Future studies could begin to test this hypothesis by comparing the special education graduation rates between Arkansas districts with different types of services provided to the students.

Is it easier for students with disabilities in Arkansas to earn a diploma?

Perhaps the high graduation rates for students with disabilities in Arkansas are due to less rigorous high school graduation requirements in Arkansas (compared to other states).  Although Arkansas has Smart Core Course graduation requirements to help prepare students for college and career readiness, students can still graduate by completing the less demanding Core Course requirements if they have parental consent.  The diploma is the same, but the requirements are different.

Similarly, a study of career and technical education in Arkansas found that students with disabilities were substantially over represented in the career concentrations of “manufacturing” and “transportation, distribution, and logistics,” while most underrepresented in “finance,” “health sciences,” and “education and training.”  The differences in academic expectations in these career tracks are clearly different.

Every student in special education has an individual education program (IEP) that should outline their path to graduation.  Some school districts state, “Those students not participating in the Smart Core curriculum will be required to fulfill the Core curriculum or the requirements of their IEP (when applicable) to be eligible for graduation.”  The word “or” is important because it tells us that the IEP can take the place of both the Core and Smart Core Course requirements.  If student IEP goals are used to determine whether a student earns a diploma or not, this could be the reason for Arkansas’s high graduation rates for students with disabilities.

Of course, we have not done a thorough review of the rules in the other 49 states, so there may be similar alternative paths available across the nation. Thus, for now, it is certainly noteworthy that special education students in Arkansas are graduating high school at very high rates.

Now what?

After examining some potential reasons why Arkansas’s graduation rates for students with disabilities may be so high, we are left wondering what the implications are for our students. Policymakers and special education scholars should be examining these results so that we can better decipher whether this is good news or bad news for our state! If the results are good news, policymakers in other states should be visiting Arkansas to gain insight. On the other hand, if we are not holding our special education students up to appropriately high standards, then school leaders in Arkansas need to seek improvement.

Of course, decisions regarding graduation requirements matter a great deal in the real world — there are real repercussions for students who do not earn a diploma.  Moreover, there are consequences for schools, districts, and states. Washington DC is facing an investigation into its graduation practices. Since 2010, all states must use the same calculation for determining the graduation rate, but the meaning of a high school diploma still varies.

Arkansas’s vision is to lead the nation in student-focused education so that every student graduates ready for college, career, and community engagement. We need to promote pathways for students to follow toward future careers and/or college, and have diplomas that match those pathways.  High school graduation is only one measure of success for our students. We should also look at their experience after graduation. Education stakeholders in Arkansas, including students, parents, school leaders, and policymakers need to determine whether those high rates of graduation for students with disabilities equates to high rates of successful graduates.

Special thanks to Sivan Tuchman, PhD for the research and insight for today’s blog!