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Comparisons Across Time of the Outcomes of Youth With Disabilities up to 4 Years After High School
NCSER 2010-3008
September 2010

Executive Summary

In an effort to document the secondary school experiences and postsecondary outcomes of students with disabilities over the last two decades, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) sponsored two longitudinal research studies 15 years apart. The first study, the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) generated nationally representative information about secondary-school-age youth who were receiving special education services in 1985. To assess the status of youth with disabilities in the early 21st century, ED commissioned the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) to generate nationally representative information about secondary-school-age youth who were receiving special education services in 2000. NLTS2 addresses many of the same issues as NLTS, but extends its scope.

The tremendous range and scale of changes in American society and its economy that occurred in the years between NLTS and NLTS2 are reflected in many aspects of our lives. Increasing diversity in our population and family structures, innovations in communication and information technologies, and the globalization of the economy are only a few of the many trends that have had far-reaching impacts on all of us. Other changes particularly affect students, such as the growing emphasis on the use of "high stakes" tests in holding schools accountable for the academic performance of their students and the growing number of "school choice" options available to parents.

Specifically, this report addresses the following questions:

  • What cohort differences and similarities are apparent between youth with disabilities out of high school up to 4 years who are represented in NLTS and in NLTS2 in the domains of postsecondary education, employment, engagement in either postsecondary education or employment, household circumstances (i.e., residential independence, marital status, and financial independence), and community integration (i.e., community participation and criminal justice system involvement)? These domains mirror the purpose of IDEA: to "prepare them [children with disabilities] for future education, employment, and independent living" (20 U.S.C. 1400(d)(1)(A) (IDEA)).

  • How do cohort differences in the post-high school outcomes of youth with disabilities compare with those of youth in the general population? Reports from NLTS and NLTS2 have compared findings for youth with disabilities with youth in the general population to the extent data permit, revealing significant differences on many factors, yet some similarities (see, for example, Newman et al 2009; Wagner et al. 1991). It is a natural extension of that research agenda to examine cohort similarities and differences over time.

  • Do youth with disabilities who differ in their primary disability, gender, race/ethnicity,1 household income, high school completion status, or years since leaving high school have different patterns of differences and similarities when youth represented in NLTS and NLTS2 are compared? These subgroups are examined because research findings generated from both studies have demonstrated that youth with disabilities who differ in these ways have markedly different experiences and outcomes (see, for example, Blackorby and Wagner 1996; Newman et al. 2009; Wagner et al. 1991; Wagner, Newman, Cameto, Levine, and Marder 2003).

To address these questions, this report focuses on the subset of youth represented in NLTS and NLTS2 who had been out of high school up to 4 years. NLTS was a 6-year-long study of youth with disabilities who were in grade 7 or above and ages 13 through 21 in the 1983–84 school year. NLTS2 is a 10-year-long study of the characteristics, experiences, and outcomes of a nationally representative sample of youth with disabilities who were 13 to 16 years old and receiving special education services in grade 7 or above on December 1, 2000. Findings from both studies are intended to generalize to youth with disabilities nationally and to youth in each of the federal special education disability categories in use for students in the NLTS or NLTS2 age range at the time of each study. NLTS2 was designed to collect data on sample members from multiple sources in five waves, beginning in 2001 and ending in 2009. NLTS also collected data from several sources, however, in two rather than five waves, beginning in 1985 and ending in 1990.

Multiple data sources were used in this report to describe the differences in post-high school experiences of youth with disabilities. The primary NLTS source was the Wave 2 parent/youth telephone interview and mail survey, conducted in 1990. For NLTS2, the primary source was the Wave 3 parent/youth telephone interview and mail survey, conducted in 2005. In addition, constructed variables that describe youth's experiences since leaving high school incorporated data from the NLTS Wave 1 parent interview (conducted in 1987) and the NLTS2 Wave 2 parent/youth telephone interview and mail survey (conducted in 2003) for youth who were out of high school in 1987 or 2003. School district rosters in both studies and the NLTS2 Wave 1 parent interview or mail survey also provided a small amount of data used in this report.

For both studies, information on the outcomes of out-of-high-school youth come from youth themselves in the majority of cases, usually from the youth telephone interview. These respondents were youth who were reported by parents to be able to answer questions for themselves by telephone. Youth who were reported to be able to answer questions for themselves, but not by telephone (e.g., youth with hearing impairments) were sent a mail questionnaire with a subset of items from the telephone survey. For youth who were reported by parents not to be able to answer questions for themselves (e.g., youth with significant cognitive impairments), interviews were attempted with parents. In NLTS, parents who could not be reached by phone were mailed a questionnaire with a subset of items from the telephone interview; no parent mail survey was conducted in Wave 3 of NLTS2. Thus there are four sources of NLTS data for Wave 2 of NLTS and three sources for Wave 3 of NLTS2.

When similar data items were available, comparisons were made between youth with disabilities and the same-age youth in the general population. Comparison data were taken from the Current Population Survey (CPS), 1990 and 2005. The CPS is a monthly survey of 50,000 households conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nationally representative sample included in this monthly survey was selected to represent the civilian noninstitutional population in the United States. Comparison data for this report were taken from the October 1990, and October 2005, data collections for youth who were 18 to 21 years old and out of high school. Calculations were made from public use data available at, using the Data Ferret Web tool.

Information reported here primarily is drawn from the second wave of parent/youth interviews conducted for NLTS in 1990 (referred to as cohort 1) and the third wave of parent/youth interviews conducted for NLTS2 youth in 2005 (referred to as cohort 2). Analyses include the age group of out-of-high-school youth that was common to the studies at those time points: youth ages 18 through 21. Youth included in this report varied in the length of time they were out of high school, ranging from less than 1 month to 4 years post-high school. This report documents differences in post-high school outcomes for out-of-high-school youth with disabilities as a whole and for youth in the nine disability categories that were in use in both 1987 and 2001, when NLTS and NLTS2 samples were selected.2 Differences also are described for youth with disabilities who varied in their school-completion status, their length of time since leaving high school, gender, their parents' household income,3 and their racial/ethnic category.

Comparisons of data from NLTS and NLTS2 document the extent and direction of differences between 1990 and 20054 in the post-high school outcomes and experiences of youth with disabilities in their first 4 years out of high school, in several key domains, including the following:

  • Postsecondary education, including enrollment and educational experiences in 2-year or 4-year colleges or postsecondary vocational, business, or technical schools.
  • Employment rates and job characteristics.
  • Overall engagement in the community through participation in school, work, or preparation for work.
  • Living arrangements, marital and parental status, and aspects of financial independence.
  • Social involvement and community involvement in both positive and negative ways (e.g., participation in organized groups and volunteer activities, and involvement with the criminal justice system).

This executive summary presents all findings related to these key domains that are included in the full report for out-of-high school youth with disabilities as a group as well as all differences between youth who differ in their disability, high-school leaving, and demographic characteristics that are significantly different at at least the p < .01 level.5


1 Findings are reported for White, African American, and Hispanic youth; other racial/ethnic categories of youth are too small in most cases to report findings for them separately.
2 Analytic adjustments, described in appendix A of the report, were made to account for differences between 1990 and 2005 in disability categories and their composition (i.e., combining the 1990 categories of deaf and hard of hearing into a single category to correspond to the 2005 category of hearing impairment; combining the 2005 category of autism with other health impairment, the category that included most youth with autism in 1990; and assigning youth in the 2005 traumatic brain injury category to a disability category compatible with the disability categories in effect in 1990, based on disability information provided by parents during the telephone interview.
3 Classifying the income of parents' households in NLTS and NLTS2 relied exclusively on information provided during the parent interview/surveys. Because income was reported in categories instead of specific amounts, it was not possible to adjust NLTS income for inflation to make them equivalent to 2005 dollars, the preferred approach for comparing income groups over time. As an alternative, three income categories were created, each of which encompassed similar proportions of the income distribution in the two studies.
4 This report examines differences in post-high school experiences of youth with disabilities between 1990 and 2005. Differences exist between NLTS and NLTS2 that have required analytic adjustments to make comparisons between the studies valid. Readers primarily interested in 2005 post-high school outcomes and experiences are referred to the report, The Post-High School Outcomes of Youth With Disabilities up to 4 Years After High School (Newman et al. 2009).
5 See appendix page A-17 for a description of the formula used to determine statistical significance of differences between the two cohorts. The text mentions only differences that reach a level of significance of at least p < .01. In addition, percentages reported in the text are rounded. Discrepancies of 1 percent or less between percentages and percentage-point differences are due to rounding.