National Study Follows Youth With Learning Disabilities from High School to Adult Life

How do youth with learning disabilities fare in high school and beyond? A government study shows mixed outcomes.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

To create a national picture of how young people with disabilities - including learning disabilities - fare as they move from high school into post-secondary education, jobs, and other responsibilities of adult life, the U.S. Department of Education (D.O.E.) in 2001 launched its second National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS2). The multi-year study will include interviews with 12,000 students ages 13 to 16 and their parents, as well as surveys of their schools and teachers.

The D.O.E. undertook the first National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) in 1987. A landmark study, the NLTS was the first effort to document the experiences and outcomes of youth with disabilities. The initial NLTS supplied a wealth of information that has been used to guide research, policy, and education planning over the past decade.

Recently, the first report of the NLTS2 was issued. It documents the extent and direction of differences - in such categories as demographics, school achievement, and parent expectations - between the population of 15- to 17-year-old youth with disabilities in 1987 and this same age group of youth with disabilities in 2001. This initial report indicates that some experiences and outcomes for students using special education services have improved since 1987. For example, in 2001, more students with AD/HD were being served; many more students with LD were at the typical grade level for their age; and the average age at which a student was first identified with LD was lower. On the other hand, problem behavior was a bigger issue in 2001 than it was in 1987, and the percentage of parents who expected their child to graduate from a four-year college, though greater, was still very low.

This update provides a brief overview of some of the findings from that initial NLTS2 report and offers some speculations about what these changes might mean for students receiving special education services, and their parents.

Prevalence of Disability Categories

The NLTS2 researchers examined the change in the percentage that each disability category in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contributed to the total number of students (ages 15-17) served. Between 1987 and 2001 the "learning disability" (LD) category showed only a slight increase in the percentage it represented of all students served.

However, the disability category known as "other health impaired" (OHI) showed a fourfold increase during the same period. This change reflects the large number of youth who have been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and found eligible for special education services. Students with this disorder are generally served under the OHI category of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


Gender distribution among 15- to 17-year-olds in the LD category showed little change, with males representing 73 percent in 1987 and 68 percent in 2001. Among ethnic groups, there was a 4 percent decline in the percentage of white students and, a 3 percent decline in the percentage of African Americans. In contrast, the proportion of Hispanics increased almost 7 percent.

The most dramatic demographic change occurred among students who did not use primarily English at home. Whereas this group represented just over 1 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds in the LD category in 1987, it represented slightly more than 15 percent in 2001.

Of particular note was the dramatic increase in the percentage of students with LD who were at the typical grade level for their age. In 1987 just 34 percent met this criterion, while more than 56 percent did so in 2001. Being behind the typical grade level for one's age is a powerful predictor of youths dropping out of school, so this change should have a positive impact on education outcomes for students with LD.

Another important finding showed a decline in the average age when a disability was first identified. In 1987 the average age of first identification for 15- to 17-year-olds in the LD category was 7.3 years. That average age declined to 6.5 years in 2001. (Students may have been initially identified for special education services under another IDEA category, such as speech/language impairment.)

Parents' Expectations

The aspirations and expectations parents hold for their adolescent children with LD is a powerful factor, since research has shown that high expectations are associated with positive student achievement and post-school outcomes. Parent expectations were measured across a variety of attainment goals, such as graduation with a regular diploma, postsecondary education, and independent living.

In both 1987 and 2001, a majority of parents - 59 percent - expected their students with LD to graduate from high school with a regular diploma. However, expectations for postsecondary education have shown dramatic improvement. In 1987 just over 3 percent of parents expected their student with LD to graduate from a two-year college. In 2001 that percentage had increased to almost 14 percent. Equally impressive, just 5 percent of parents expected graduation from a four-year college in 1987, and in 2001 that percentage had increased to almost 10 percent. While a doubling of the percentage of parents expecting this level of postsecondary achievement is important, in 2001 a majority of parents - 64 percent - reported that they expected their student with LD definitely or probably wouldn't graduate from a four-year college.

Given that by the year 2006, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1999) projects that 18 of the top 25 occupations with the largest and fastest employment growth, high pay, and low unemployment will require at least a bachelor's degree, parental expectations for youth with LD need to increase dramatically if we are to help this population achieve a high level of employment and independent living.


Work was a much bigger part of the lives of 15- to 17-year-olds with LD in 2001 than was the case in 1987. In fact, 67 percent of youth with LD reported having a paid job outside the home in 2001 (versus 57 percent in 1987), a rate that exceeds that of the general population of youth (63 percent). However, the percentage of students with LD working more than 16 hours per week declined from 61 percent in 1987 to 43 percent in 2001. While youth employment has become a norm in American society, the potential negative consequences of students working long hours was highlighted in a 1998 report from the National Research Council. This reduction in work hours could benefit students with LD and contribute to better attainment of education related goals.

Problem Behavior

The NLTS2 studied the issue of problem behavior among students with disabilities resulting in negative consequences, by assessing the extent to which youth had ever been suspended or expelled from school, fired from a job, or arrested. For youth with LD, those experiencing any of these negative consequences increased from 13 percent in 1987 to 19 percent in 2001. This finding would indicate that services designed to address behavioral issues need improvement.

These findings, and those still to come out of the NLTS2, can and should help guide research, policy-making, educational programming, and parent expectations for youths with LD. By using this information wisely, students, parents, educators, and others can continue to improve post-secondary education, employment, and independent living outcomes for students with LD.


Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.