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Evaluation Studies of the National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

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National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012 (NLTS 2012)

Background and Research Questions:

Helping students, particularly those with disabilities, to complete high school prepared to pursue postsecondary education, jobs, and independent living is a national priority. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) provides funds to school districts to serve students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and places emphasis on transition services to help youth with disabilities achieve these important post-school outcomes.

The National Longitudinal Transition Study 2012 (NLTS 2012) is the third longitudinal study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education over several decades to examine the characteristics, experiences, and post-high school outcomes of a nationally representative sample of youth with disabilities. Conducted under a congressional mandate to assess IDEA, NLTS 2012 collects information on students ages 13 to 21 and, for the first time, is able to directly compare youth with an IEP to youth without an IEP, including those who receive accommodations through a plan developed under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and those with neither an IEP nor a 504 plan. Over the course of the study, the following questions will be addressed:

  • How do the personal, family, and school characteristics and experiences of youth with disabilities differ from those of youth not served under IDEA? (Volume 1; March 2017)
  • How do the characteristics and experiences of youth vary across disability groups? (Volume 2; March 2017)
  • How have the characteristics and experiences of youth with disabilities changed over time?
  • To what extent do youth with disabilities make progress through high school compared to other youth?
  • Are youth with disabilities achieving the post-high school outcomes envisioned by IDEA, and how do their college, training, and employment rates compare to those of other youth?
  • How do these high school and postsecondary outcomes vary with student characteristics?


This descriptive study includes 432 school districts and special schools randomly sampled in 2011 and students randomly sampled within those districts. Survey data were collected in 2012-2013 from approximately 12,000 in-school youth and their parents, of which about 10,000 are students with IEPs representing each of the federal disability categories. The surveys asked about the background characteristics of secondary school youth and the schools they attend, their health, functional abilities, and engagement in school, the academic supports they receive, and their expectations for and steps to achieve transitions beyond high school.

NLTS 2012 will follow the students through high school and beyond, relying on administrative data collected by other agencies: (1) school district records, including transcripts and assessments; (2) postsecondary enrollment information from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) and financial aid information from the Department's Federal Student Aid (FSA) records; (3) disability program participation, employment and earnings information from the Social Security Administration (SSA); and (4) information about vocational rehabilitative services and supports youth received from the Department's Rehabilitative Services Administration (RSA). Administrative data will be linked with the 2012-2013 survey data to examine high school course-taking and completion, and youth's experiences with college, training, and employment.

Key Findings:

The March 2017 multi-volume report suggests:

  • Youth with an IEP, particularly those with intellectual disability and emotional disturbance, are more likely than their peers to be socioeconomically disadvantaged. Youth with an IEP are 12 percentage points more likely to live in low-income households and are less likely to have parents who are employed or have a college education. Among disability groups, youth with intellectual disability and youth with emotional disturbance are more socioeconomically disadvantaged and more likely to attend a lower-performing school than youth with an IEP overall. In contrast, youth with autism and youth with speech or language impairments are less socioeconomically disadvantaged and less likely to attend a lower-performing school than youth with an IEP overall.
  • The vast majority of youth with and without an IEP feel positive about school, but those with an IEP experience bullying and are suspended at higher rates. Like their peers, more than 80 percent of youth in special education report that they are happy with school and with school staff. However, not only do youth with an IEP more commonly experience some types of bullying (e.g., being teased or called names) but, according to parent reports, they are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Among the disability groups, youth with emotional disturbance are most likely to report being teased and are suspended, expelled, and arrested at more than twice the rates of youth with an IEP on average.
  • Youth with an IEP are more likely than other youth to struggle academically, yet less likely to receive some forms of school-based support. Half of all youth with an IEP report they have trouble with their classes, about 15 percentage points more than reported by their peers. However, they are less likely to report receiving school-based academic help before or after regular hours, although their parents more commonly help with homework and attend a parent-teacher conference. Among youth with an IEP, those with autism, intellectual disability, and multiple disabilities are least likely to receive school-provided instruction outside of school hours though most likely to receive modified tests and assignments.
  • Youth with an IEP lag their peers in planning and taking steps to obtain postsecondary education and jobs. Substantially fewer youth with an IEP expect to enroll in postsecondary education or training, compared to youth without an IEP. Reflecting these gaps, youth in special education are almost half as likely as their peers to report taking college entrance and placement tests. Forty percent report having recent paid work experience while in high school, compared with 50 percent of youth without an IEP. Among youth with an IEP, the three groups least likely to receive academic supports before or after school—youth with autism, intellectual disability, and multiple disabilities—are also least likely to take these steps to prepare for college and employment.
  • Youth with autism, deaf-blindness, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, and orthopedic impairments are most at-risk for not transitioning successfully beyond high school. Youth in these groups are less likely than all youth with an IEP to have key characteristics and experiences linked to success after high school, such as performing typical daily living tasks, engaging with friends and in school activities, or preparing for college, careers, and independent living.

Key findings will be updated when subsequent reports are released.

Publications and Products:

Three related report volumes describing the survey information collected are being released in 2017. The third, which will compare the characteristics and experiences of in-school youth with an IEP over time using NLTS 2012 and earlier NLTS studies, is expected later in 2017 and will be announced on The first two volumes were released on [March 28, 2017]. Publications are listed below.

Descriptive Reports

Preparing for Life after High School: The Characteristics and Experiences of Youth in Special Education. Findings from the NLTS 2012. Volume 1: Comparisons with Other Youth (March 2017)

Preparing for Life after High School: The Characteristics and Experiences of Youth in Special Education. Findings from the NLTS 2012 Volume 2: Comparisons across Disability Groups (March 2017)

Review synthesis

Improving Post-High School Outcomes for Transition-Age Students with Disabilities: An Evidence Review (August 2013)

Contract Information

Current Status: Survey data collection has been completed. Collection of school records data is underway.

Duration: Phase I (Sampling and Survey Collection): September 2010–February 2018; Phase II (Administrative Records Collection): September 2015 – September 2020

Cost: Phase I: $24,243,405; Phase II: $7,237,097

Contract Number: ED-IES-10-C-0073 (Phase I); ED-IES-15-C-0046 (Phase II)

Phase I:
Mathematica Policy Research
University of Minnesota, Institute of Community Integration

Phase II:
RTI International
SRI International
Social Dynamics

Contact: Yumiko Sekino