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IDEA: Transition from High School


“Access” and an “opportunity to learn” must be the floor, not ceiling for the 6 million students with disabilities in this country. It’s time for the goals of learning to actually mean something!”

 Denise Marshall, COPAA Executive Director


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Transition services are defined as a coordinated set of activities for a student with a disability that:


  • Is designed to be within a results‐oriented process, that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child with a disability to facilitate the child's movement from school to post‐school activities, including post‐secondary education, vocational education, integrated employment (including supported employment),continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation;
  • Is based on the individual child's needs, taking into account the child's strengths, preferences, and interests; and,
  • Includes instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post‐school adult living objectives, and, when appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational evaluation. (20 U.S.C. § 1402 (34))

IDEA requires that youth age 16 and older have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with a postsecondary transition plan that is updated annually. In some states, transition planning may begin as early as age 14.  Federal law mandates that transition planning must help students and their families think about their life after high school and identify long-range goals that design the high school experience so that students gain the skills and connections they need to achieve these goals.  Here’s why it matters:

 Quick Facts on Transition in U.S. Schools

  • There are 6 million students eligible for services under the IDEA yet:
  • 61% graduate with a regular diploma as compared to 80% without disabilities (NCES, 2014)

  • 7.6 percent attended a four-year university, compared with 29.2 percent in the general population (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, & Knokey, 2009)

  • 17.6 percent of persons with a disability were employed compared to 7.1 percent of the general population (DOL 2013).

  • Students with intellectual and developmental disabilities frequently transition out of high school lacking the proper skills required to find and maintain employment or pursue post-secondary education.   

Despite clear legislative and judicial intent, and significant public expense, there remains a huge gap in the state of the art vs. state of the practice when it comes to college and career outcomes for our students.  This is largely due to persistent low expectations for students and a lack of knowledge in how to effectively provide work experience and training (including mentoring, internships, summer work programs, and career development).

Although the IDEA requires schools to provide transition services to support students with disabilities during their high school years, to date, there has been very little enforcement, monitoring or evaluation of school districts to ensure that there is strong compliance with this important provision in the law. It is no surprise then that upon exiting the school system, these young citizens are woefully unprepared and unsupported in finding and maintaining employment in the community and at wages which promote optimal self-sufficiency and independence.


Recommendations to Promote Self-Sufficiency and Independence  

  • College and Career Readiness (CCR) preparation should begin in preschool programs and continue in elementary and middle school with links to high school/transition services.
  • CCR skills and knowledge needed by adults must be mapped backward to develop a skills development plan for young students to the point when the student no longer receives IDEA services.
  • High school services must be coordinated with other local community services and Department of Labor programs in each state (e.g. employers, community partners).
  • High School services must be tailored to ensure integrated paid jobs before exiting school and college participation (including high quality alternative college programs)
  • IEPs should focus on post-school outcomes.
  • The implementing regulations of the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act (WIOA) must ensure:

For all students eligible for IDEA, transition services must require that the state designed college and career ready standards apply fully to students with disabilities and intentionally target students with disabilities and include the following key components of high school services:

  • Ladders of Opportunity to learn and experience work
  • Supports for education in the least restrictive environment with peers without disabilities 
  • Universal design for learning 
  • On the job training (array of field-based work experience in real jobs) 
  • Summer focused planning early in the second semester to ensure summer employment 
  • Intentional sequencing of content instruction toward grade level academics and the other knowledge and skills that lead to the attainment of integrated paid employment and/or participation in college 
  •  The same job/career support and job fairs provided to for peers without disabilities, including access to informed guidance counselors 
  •  The same job/career information for families provided for peers without disabilities.


For students 18 and older (age for exiting IDEA varies by state) best practices must ensure that:

  • Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for that age group can equal extended time to work on graduation or dual enrollment in college and/or integrated paid employment, with transportation.


  • Require descriptions for LRE as it pertains to early childhood, K-12 and transition/postsecondary education.  



Federal Partners in Transition


The Federal Partners in Transition (FPT), a workgroup with representatives of several federal agencies, developed an interagency strategy to support students and youth with disabilities in reaching their goals of economic empowerment and independence. As a result of this collaborative effort, The 2020 Federal Youth Transition Plan: A Federal Interagency Strategy (2020 PlanPDF, 315KB) was approved by Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Labor, and the Social Security Administration to improve transition outcomes for students and youth with disabilities.

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