Back to School, Back to ESSA and Supporting Students with Disabilities

Jenna Tomasello is a Policy Associate at AYPF

As summer winds down and fall approaches, it marks a bittersweet moment for students, parents, and educators everywhere – school’s back in session. States, districts, and schools may also be confronted with mixed emotions this 2018-19 school year as the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) goes into full effect. While ESSA was enacted in 2015, the nation’s main K-12 education law is finally a classroom reality, marking the transition of new responsibilities for states and districts and upholding federal mandates on assessment, accountability, and other areas of new school improvement processes.

ESSA requires that all students have access to a well-rounded education and be held to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers. Despite advances in improving students’ college and career readiness, unfortunately there’s still a great deal of work needed to help more students with disabilities achieve their full potential:

  • Students with disabilities graduate from high school at lower rates than the general population.During the 2015-16 school year, the high school graduation rate for all students reached an all-time high of 84%, compared to 66% for students with disabilities.
  • Students with disabilities enroll in postsecondary education at similar rates as their peers without disabilities yet are less likely to earn a degree. In 2016, the percentage of people with and without disabilities ages 21 to 64 with only some college or an associate’s degree was 31.5%. However, the percentage of people with disabilities ages 21 to 64 with a bachelor’s degree or higher level of degree attainment was 14% compared with 33.8% of people without disabilities.
  • Students with disabilities are less likely to be employed as adults than their peers without disabilities. In 2016, the employment rate for people with disabilities ages 21 to 64 was less than half than for people without disabilities (36.2% and 78.9%, respectively).

With the 2018-19 year upon us, states, districts, and schools should be thinking about how to best align their policies to ensure students with disabilities have access to a well-rounded education that will prepare them to successfully transition to postsecondary activities. The College and Career Readiness and Success (CCRS) Center brief How ESSA and IDEA Can Support College and Career Readiness for Students With Disabilities (2018) examines how two federal education laws, ESSA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), can promote the development of meaningful pathways to postsecondary opportunities by supporting college and career readiness for student with disabilities.

Specifically, this brief:

  • Examines data on secondary and postsecondary education and employment outcomes of students with disabilities;
  • Considers how college and career readiness strategies can support students with disabilities on a path to postsecondary education and career opportunities;
  • Provides analyses of the provisions under ESSA and IDEA that support college and career readiness for students with disabilities;
  • Features examples of effective state, district, school, and program practices; and
  • Includes guidance for state leaders.

As we kickoff the school year, states, districts, and schools have an important role to play in ensuring students with disabilities have access to rigorous academic standards, receive the supports they need to meet these standards, and are prepared for college, careers, and independence. The implementation of ESSA provides an opportunity to ensure this happens, especially when efforts under ESSA and IDEA are coordinated.

If this back-to-school reading has you wanting more information about how to promote a well-rounded education for students with disabilities, check out these recent AYPF and CCRS Center webinars:


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.