Mary Wagner2

Mary Wagner, Ph.D., SRI International

Mary Wagner presented insights from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2) that were based on data gathered five times (2001 to 2009) from parents and youth living in a nationally representative sample of 500 local education agencies. Findings based on NLTS2 data have been disseminated in numerous reports and 84 peer reviewed journal articles published since 2011 by more than 100 researchers around the country. Funding for various aspects of SRI’s analyses of NLTS2 data has come from the Institute of Education Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. Areas of interest include the high school and post-high school experiences and outcomes of youth with disabilities, including participation in STEM education and careers by youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and the contribution of high school career and technical education to post-high school employment, for example. 

How do the results from the NLTS-2 compare with the 1984-1993 NLTS results?

Since the first NLTS, we’ve seen significant progress for students with disabilities, but it’s uneven. For example, more students with disabilities have enrolled in general education academic subjects and better support has been provided to general education teachers who teach students with disabilities, but absenteeism and suspensions also have increased. Similarly, we’ve seen increases in high school completion, participation in community activities, and enrollment in college and postsecondary career technical education programs, but no significant improvement in the overall rate of employment, job duration, or wages. There also has been a significant decline in working youth receiving employer-provided benefits.

Do these results play out equally for all students with disabilities?

No. We found that the improvements identified were not equally distributed. For example, the increase in general education academic enrollment occurred only among youth with learning disabilities and those who were deaf or hard of hearing and among white youth and those from higher-income households. In contrast, youth with intellectual disabilities and Hispanic youth saw no improvement in grades, and youth with emotional disabilities or other health impairments and those from lower income households had the greatest increases in school suspensions and arrests.

You identify employment after high school as one area where outcomes can be improved. What can we do in high school to improve employment prospects after graduation for students with disabilities?

We found that having a paid job during high school is a significant predictor of employment after high school. Other factors include: earning four or more credits in occupationally specific career and technical education, receiving high school career counseling and participating in effective transition planning. The same concepts hold true for postsecondary education enrollment. Students who hope to enroll in and complete a postsecondary degree should take more academic courses during high school, strive for a higher GPA in those courses, complete more advanced math courses and participate in effective transition planning.

Looking forward, how can we strengthen IDEA so we can better serve students with disabilities who are transitioning to life after school?

We need to make high school graduation a priority. To do that, we’ll need support for the use of evidence-based practices that can prevent dropouts and improve dropout recovery. We also need to improve transition planning. First steps in that area could include returning to a mandated starting age of 14 years old and increasing efforts to make parents partners in the transition planning process. Effective transition plans should also include community members who are appropriate to the student’s goals such as community employers, service providers or college representatives. Overall, we need a culture change to one that encourages success for every student.


Mary Wagner is a Principal Scientist at the Center for Education and Human Services at SRI International. Over her 36-year career, she has designed and conducted large-scale, survey-based studies on the experiences and outcomes of children and youth with disabilities across the age range, with a particular emphasis on transition-age youth. Dr. Wagner led the teams that designed and directed the first National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS, 1985-1993) and its second incarnation, the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (1999-2011) and is now studying the post-high school outcomes of youth in NLTS 2012, Phase 2. She also has led or participated in a portfolio of IES-funded grants to conduct secondary analyses on NLTS2 data to identify “what works” in generating positive outcomes for youth in their post-high school years.  As a member of a Community of Practice of researchers using NLTS2 data, she works to maximize their value in addressing the wide variety of remaining questions regarding interventions to promote post-high school success.