IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Research Update: Effective Post-school Transition Practices for Students with Disabilities

The special education research community has increasingly focused on how best to support students with disabilities in the transition from high school to postsecondary education or adult life. 

Transition supports provided in schools for these youth can differ and, as a result, the outcomes for these students during and after high school can vary a great deal.[1] The National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) has funded several grants on the topic.

Some of these NCSER-funded studies have incorporated and evaluated new approaches to provide educators with concrete information about effective practices to promote positive transition outcomes during and after high school.  Here is a brief update on a few promising programs and practices.

Picture (clockwise from top left) - David Test, Mary Wagner, Erik Carter, Sarah Gennen. Photos from university websites.

David Test, Tiana Povenmire-Kirk, Claudia Flowers, and their colleagues at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte recently completed a four-year study of the effects of a transition-planning service delivery system model on transition outcomes for students with disabilities. Communicating Interagency Relationships and Collaborative Linkages for Exceptional Students (CIRCLES) is a three-tier model of interagency collaboration among community, school, and IEP teams (see graphic).[2] The effect of CIRCLES was studied using a group-randomized controlled trial, the first rigorous evaluation of such an intervention. Results indicated many positive impacts of the program including increased collaboration among teams, and increased rates of self-determination, IEP participation, and academic performance for CIRCLE students as compared to students in the control group receiving business-as-usual supports for transition.[3] One year after exiting high school, No differences in post-school outcomes were observed for those in CIRCLES as compared to those in the control group. However, these data were obtained for fewer than half of the original sample. More research is to be done to determine the true impact of CIRCLES on post-school outcomes.   

Mary Wagner and her team addressed questions about the impact of interventions for high school students with autism spectrum disorders using a quasi-experimental design and longitudinal data from several national datasets. Her team found that 2- or 4-year college enrollment rates were significantly higher among youth with autism who participated in transition planning and those who had a primary transition goal of college enrollment.[4] In addition, the results indicated that these enrollment rates were significantly higher among students with autism who were included in secondary school general education English, math, science, or social studies classes than their peers with ASDs who were not included in these classes.[5]

Erik Carter at Vanderbilt University and his research team undertook a four-year study to examine the effect of peer support and peer network strategies as alternatives to traditional paraprofessional-delivered support to assist adolescents with severe disabilities in the classroom. The research team examined the impact of these interventions and found significant increases in participating students’ progress on individual goals, peer interactions and social relationships, social and academic engagement, and community participation compared to those receiving traditional paraprofessional support.[6] Previous research on transition interventions of this kind helped to identify evidence-based practices but this study was the first to rigorously evaluate them. Peers in the classroom can play a unique and valuable role in the welfare of adolescents with severe disabilities, and paraprofessionals and special educators can serve in a different role as facilitators of the peer support provided in these interventions.

Sarah Geenen, Laurie Powers, and their team at Portland State University conducted a longitudinal, experimental study to assess the efficacy of a supplemental transition program designed for youth in high school who are in both special education and foster care. Foster care students, they note, are disproportionately more likely to receive special education services than non-foster care students. The results were compelling, with meaningful and positive effects on youth participants, with lower rates of involvement in the juvenile justice system and increased independent living preparation and skills as compared to non-participants.[7]

Learn more about NCSER-funded work in the Transition Outcomes for Secondary Students with Disabilities topics on the Institute of Education Sciences website or contact Kim Sprague at Kimberley.Sprague@ed.gov.

Written by Diane Mechner, University of Virginia, and Kim Sprague, Program Officer for Transition. Ms. Mechner, a student, was a 2016 IES summer intern.


[2] Povenmire-Kirk, T., Diegelmann, K., Crump, K., Schnorr, C., Test, D.W., Flowers, C., & Aspel, N. (2015). Implementing CIRCLES: A new model for interagency collaboration in transition planning. Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 42, 51-65.

[3] Flowers, C., Test, D. W., Povenmire-Kirk, T., Kemp-Inman, A., Diegelmann, K. M., & Bunch-Crump, K. (in press). A cluster randomized controlled trial of a multi-level model of interagency collaboration. Exceptional Children.

[4] Wei, X., Wagner, M., Yu, J. W., Hudson, L., & Javitz, H. (2016). The effect of transition planning and goal-setting on college enrollment among youth with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Remedial and Special Education, 37(1), 3-14, doi:10.1177/0741932515581495.

[5] Wei, X., Wagner, M., Yu, J. W., & Javitz, H. (in press). The effect of general education inclusion on college enrollment rates among youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Autism.

[6] Carter, E. W., Asmus, J., Moss, C. K., Biggs, E. E., Bolt, D. M., Born, T., Brock, M. E., Cattey, G. N., Chen, R,, Cooney, M., Fesperman, E., Hochman, J. M., Huber, H. B., Lequia, J. L., Lyons, G., Moyseenko, K. A., Riesch, L. M., Shalev, R. A., Vincent, L. B., & Weir, K. (2016). Randomized evaluation of peer support arrangements to support the inclusion of high school students with severe disabilities. Exceptional Children, 82(2), 209-233, doi:0014402915598780.

[7] Powers, L. E., Geenen, S., Powers, J., Pommier-Satya, S., Turner, A., Dalton, L. D., Drummond, D., & Swank, P. (2012). My life: Effects of a longitudinal, randomized study of self-determination enhancement on the transition outcomes of youth in foster care and special education. Children and Youth Services Review, 34, 2179–2187, doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2012.07.018.

 

Improving Transitions: How NCSER-supported Work is Helping Prepare Students for Success

Talk of “transition” on Capitol Hill frequently focuses on political issues, such as the transition from one administration to the next. But on March 4, the conversation was about a very different type of transition—promoting positive outcomes for students with disabilities after high school.

For students with disabilities, post-high school goals are often similar to their non-disabled peers, but preparing them for success requires planning, support, and targeted interventions.

Over the past several years, the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) in the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded research to innovate and develop as well as rigorously assess interventions that help students make successful transitions after high school.

A briefing on Capitol Hill was held this month to share recent research on transition for these students conducted by experts in the field. These experts have all received funding support from NCSER to help us better understand the transition challenges facing students with disabilities and to develop research-based programs and supports to increase the chances of success for students with disabilities.

"Young people with disabilities want the very same things as anyone else. A satisfying job, close relationships, a comfortable and safe place to live, a college degree, involvement in their community, friends they can count on, a chance to give something back, and an opportunity to be part of caring communities."

– Dr. Erik Carter, Vanderbilt University

Mary Wagner, of SRI International, began the briefing by talking about the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (known as the NLTS2), the more recent longitudinal study of the experiences of youth with disabilities as they transitioned from secondary school into postsecondary life over a 10-year period. Dr. Wagner presented findings that show that there has been progress in preparing students for, and engaging them in, postsecondary education. Additional academic courses, a paid job, and participation in transition planning and goal setting in high school were associated with increases in postsecondary education enrollment for these students after high school. However, the improvements have been uneven for some groups of students with disabilities and many challenges remain. For example, the rates of employment over time have not increased. 

David W. Test, of University of North Carolina-Charlotte, presented information about the innovative program “Communicating Interagency Relationships and Collaborative Linkages for Exceptional Students” or CIRCLES. This program involves three levels of interagency collaboration to promote positive outcomes for students with disabilities in secondary schools. The program connects students to more information and resources as well as provides mentoring support and partnerships. Ongoing research indicates the CIRCLES program is having a positive impact on student outcomes as compared to students receiving school services typically provided to support transition. In addition, participating students overwhelmingly agreed with the statement that they were “prepared for life after school” and their parents strongly agreed that they had “a better understanding of their child’s needs” and reported playing an active role in transition preparation.

The final two speakers discussed programs aimed at helping with transitions for students who face some of the greatest challenges.

Laurie E. Powers, of Portland State University, presented a research-based intervention program, “My Life,” for youth in foster care who also have disabilities. This program combines youth-directed coaching, workshops, and partnerships and mentoring to assist students in identifying goals and provide information and guidance they need to help them to experience success and to understand that they can achieve their goals. Many youth in foster care face extreme challenges in general: higher levels of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, abuse, and other mental health issues, and face incarceration rates of 10 times more than the general population. In addition, about 6 in 10 receive special education services and many also have developmental disabilities.

Research results have been positive. Students in the My Life program were found to be better prepared for postsecondary education and careers, and more were graduating from high school and fewer were homeless. After one year, postsecondary employment rates were up and rates of incarceration were down compared to the students who received services as usual.

Lastly, Erik Carter, of Vanderbilt University, presented research on improving workplace transitions for youth with intellectual disabilities (ID) in high school through a summer job support program. Although a disability does not predict aspirations, it does often predict post-high school experiences. Based on an analysis of data from the NLTS2, most youth with ID have a goal of employment, but only about 15 percent of all adults with ID are employed. A factor positively predicting outcomes for these students were the high expectations of those teaching them.

Project Summer embodies high expectations for these students and involves individual summer-focused transition planning, identification of community resources, and opportunities for youth to connect to community support and employment opportunities. Research indicates that the youth involved in Project Summer were much more likely to obtain employment or volunteer experiences in their community (66%) than their peers (19%) and all were paid above the minimum wage. This research also demonstrated that schools and communities have the capacity to support and promote the employment of youth with severe disabilities.

The briefing was sponsored by Senator Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, Representative Suzanna Bonamici, of Oregon, and Representative Michael Honda, of California and was arranged by the Friends of IES, a group that advocates for education research. Certainly, there is much more work to be done to help students with disabilities successfully transition from high school and help them achieve their goals. But this month’s briefing demonstrated that progress is being made.

By Kimberley Sprague, Senior Research Scientist/Education Analyst, NCSER, and Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES