Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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

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.


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