Few education movements are so clearly identified by a single rallying cry as the standards-based reforms now dominating the nation's education policy agenda. "High standards for all students" has come to represent a set of principles for improving student learning that includes prescriptions for both policy and classroom practice. Standards-based reform is premised on the notion that setting high academic standards and then expecting schools to teach and students to learn to those standards can serve as a potent lever to improve overall educational quality. Although this strategy has taken a variety of forms at the national, state, and local levels, the reforms have four common elements:
a focus on student achievement as the primary measure of school success;
an emphasis on challenging academic standards that specify the knowledge and skills students should acquire and the levels at which they should demonstrate mastery;
a desire to extend the standards to all students, including those for whom expectations have been traditionally low; and
a heavy reliance on achievement testing to spur the reforms and to monitor their impact.
Standards-based reform poses a host of political and technical questions. For example, is it possible to reach a widespread consensus on what knowledge is most valuable for students to learn? Can the kinds of higher-order, analytical skills expected of students be assessed reliably and validly? Perhaps most challenging of all: Can and should standards be applied to all students? What exactly does "all" mean?
The goal of having all students study similar content is not new. The current
rhetoric would sound familiar to the education reformers who issued the 1893 Committee of Ten Report recommending that: ''Every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil as long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at which point his education is to cease" (cited in Cuban, 1990:4). Yet "all students" had quite a different meaning in 1893, when those attending high school represented only a small proportion of all youth, compared with the overwhelming majority of youth who now complete high school (Porter et al., 1991).
Not only does "all students" apply to a different population than it did a century ago, but a variety of social, political, and pedagogical forces have produced diverse educational experiences for students, depending on their abilities, interests, and needs. The "shopping mall" school, with its array of course boutiques offering different learning opportunities, has largely replaced the ideal of the common school (Powell et al., 1985). Some schooling practices that work against common standards, such as tracking, are viewed by many as contributing to greater inequity and harming poor and underachieving students (Oakes, 1985; Kifer, 1993). Other practices that offer differentiated curricula and instructional services, however, are widely accepted as effective strategies for promoting more equitable learning opportunities. These strategies assume that educational expectations and instructional approaches should be tailored to students' individual abilities, needs, and learning styles.
Advocates of standards-based reform acknowledge the importance of attending to the individual needs of students, even as they promote educational strategies that emphasize common standards and "the common needs of society as a whole" (O'Day and Smith, 1993:253):
Not to accommodate student differences … could effectively deny access to large numbers of students. At the same time, such "accommodation," if taken too far, could itself result in substantially different opportunities for different students. For the reform to be successful, the approaches taken by all schools must be based on common curriculum frameworks and all students must be expected and given the opportunity to perform at the same high standards on a common assessment (p. 265).
Achieving an effective balance between the common purposes of public schooling and the individual needs of students remains an enduring challenge, despite a century of efforts to reconcile the two goals.
Students' individual needs may stem from their differing abilities and interests, their social and ethnic backgrounds, or their prior opportunities. This report focuses on students with disabilities and their diverse needs and abilities. Although federal and state policies may not always detail the specifics of these students' participation in standards-based reform, they assume that students with disabilities are among the "all" who can learn to high standards.
Educating these students also requires attention to their unique needs. For over 20 years, the legal environment and professional norms defining special education have emphasized the right of students with disabilities to an appropriate education, with the outcomes and curriculum articulated through an individualized education program (IEP). Because the term "students with disabilities" encompasses a broad range of physical and cognitive conditions, learning goals and instructional accommodations may vary from student to student. Consequently, a recognition that instructional strategies and assessment techniques need to be tailored to the learning styles and capacities of individual students lies at the core of special education.1 At the same time, special education policy also requires that students with disabilities be integrated into regular classrooms to the maximum extent possible (i.e., referred to in special education law as placement in the least restrictive environment). Although individualized education has meant specialized services and differentiated outcomes for students with disabilities, the strong presumption in policy and practice has been that these students will share in the collective learning experience that public schooling affords all students. As with most policies, these requirements have been interpreted and implemented differently across the nation's schools and classrooms. Nevertheless, a constant has been the responsibility of the public schools to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities within the common structure that defines the education available to all children.
Recent efforts to implement standards-based reforms come at a time when special education is at a crossroads. The procedural guarantees embodied in federal and state legislation have resulted in significant advances in the access of students with disabilities to schooling. But high dropout rates and low rates of successful transition to postsecondary education, employment, and independent living among students with disabilities suggest that their gains in school access have not been matched by equally successful educational outcomes.
Some advocates of standards-based reform argue that, with its focus on learning outcomes, this strategy will address the perceived shortcomings of current approaches to special education (for one example of such advocacy, see Barrett and Allen, 1996:32–34). At this point, however, it is a promising but as yet unproven alternative for organizing instruction. Before any determination can be
made about the effectiveness of a standards-based approach for educating students with disabilities, considerably more information and experience are needed. Melding the principles of standards-based reform and special education and then implementing them in local schools and classrooms require a systematic understanding of the realities of policy and practice as they apply to both approaches. This report is a first step in providing that deeper understanding.
STUDY PURPOSE AND APPROACH
This report assesses the extent to which the goals of common standards and individualized education can be effectively linked. Because the purpose of the report is to analyze the policy and practice issues that must be considered if students with disabilities are to participate in standards-based reforms, we do not assess all the various strategies that might be used in educating students with disabilities. Consequently, the report does not consider the broader issue of including students with disabilities in general education classrooms and the larger community. The committee determined that, although many of the issues surrounding standards-based reform relate to where a student with a disability is educated, it made an explicit decision not to consider these placement issues. Therefore, despite the use of the term "inclusion" in the statutory language authorizing the committee, this report does not reflect a particular position either supporting or opposing the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms. Rather, the analysis presented here examines the educational philosophies, underlying assumptions, and approaches to teaching and learning embodied in standards-based reform and compares them with how special education has treated each of the same dimensions.
Four broad questions frame the report:
What are the major ideas that standards-based reform and special education prescribe for effective educational standards, curriculum, assessment, and accountability?
What evidence supports those ideas?
What are the major points of consistency and difference between standards-based reform and special education?
What changes in policy and practice will be necessary for the goals of individualized education and common standards to be linked productively for students with disabilities?
The committee's original charge was to "conduct a comprehensive study of the inclusion of children with disabilities in school reform activities assisted under Goals 2000: Educate America Act" (P.L. No. 103–227, sec 1015). The legislation establishing the committee specified that it should evaluate the National Education Goals and other curriculum reforms and standards; review the adequacy of assessments used to gauge progress toward meeting the National Education
Goals and other national and state standards, as well any accommodations necessary to collect data on the progress of students with disabilities and the cost of such accommodations; examine what incentives might be provided to states to develop improvement plans that address the needs of children with disabilities; consider the relationship of Goals 2000 to other federal policies affecting the education of students with disabilities; and investigate any related issues that the National Academy of Sciences considered appropriate.
Although these topics remained a focus of the committee's deliberations, several policy developments required that we modify the scope of our work. During the committee's tenure, the Goals 2000 legislation was substantially altered to reduce the federal direction that states must accept as a condition for funding, giving them greater autonomy in the design of their reforms and increasing the variability among standards policies. These changes meant that, for the committee to fulfill the spirit of its charge, it needed to expand its focus beyond Goals 2000 and to look more generally at standards-based reforms in their various state and local manifestations. Consequently, this report analyzes the Goals 2000 legislation, but it does not explicitly examine the relationship between the National Education Goals and students with disabilities. Rather, it considers how these students are likely to be affected by the content standards, performance standards, and assessments that states and localities are implementing, both within and beyond the Goals 2000 structure.
Our focus on standards-based reform, however, should not be interpreted as an endorsement of it as a strategy for either improving America's schools or enhancing the education of students with disabilities. The committee was not asked to judge the merits of standards-based reforms, nor could it do so, given the recency of these policies and the paucity of data on their effectiveness. Our report provides no advice on whether standards-based reforms are desirable. Rather, we approached our task by asking: "If states and local communities decide to implement standards-based reforms, what conditions will enable students with disabilities to participate in them?" To the extent possible, our analysis takes into account the range of policies being implemented under the standards banner. However, we did assume that at least two premises define the standards approach to education reform: standards will be high, and they will apply to all students.
Just as we did not investigate the effectiveness of the standards framework or its desirability as an educational strategy, we similarly accepted the defining elements of special education policy as a given. We assumed that students with disabilities will continue to be educated according to federal and state laws that mandate that they be provided a free and appropriate public education, through a plan specified in an individualized education program, delivered in the least restrictive environment.
Although some of our analyses suggest that other strategies for educating students with disabilities could potentially be effective, the limitations of our
charge and the lack of relevant data did not permit us to investigate these alternatives. Consequently, the recommendations presented in this report are offered as incremental strategies for making the standards-based and special education approaches compatible, improving the likelihood of their successful implementation, and enhancing the knowledge base on which future decisions about policy and practice will be made.
We note, however, that, even though our focus is on students with disabilities, many of the issues we examine and the recommendations we make also apply to other students who share some of the same characteristics and educational needs as those with disabilities. The committee is not in a position to estimate precisely the size of that group or to specify exactly how our recommendations might be applied to them. But we can say that much of what we conclude about the strengths and limitations of the standards movement and about the conditions necessary for full participation in reform curricula and assessments has implications for a broader group of students than just those with disabilities.
Our analysis draws on a variety of sources. The committee examined summary data produced by government agencies and professional associations. We also reviewed a wide body of research literature analyzing the implementation of policy in local communities and the effects of specific educational practices on student outcomes. In addition, the committee commissioned an analysis of the legal history of special education and its implications for standards-based reform. To understand better the perspectives of policy makers, the special education community, and educators more broadly, the committee met several times with congressional and U.S. Department of Education staff to discuss the expectations that they hold for standards-based reform and for the participation of students with disabilities. The committee also sponsored a workshop at which representatives of 10 national organizations outlined what they see as the major unresolved issues with regard to students with disabilities and standards-based reform, as well as the changes in policy and practice they believe will be necessary if these students are to benefit from standards-based instructional strategies. A summary of the workshop is included in Appendix B.
Finally, the committee conducted a new analysis of data from the Prospects study. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, this study collected data on the first nationally representative sample of elementary school students, allowing a systematic comparison of the school experiences of students with and without disabilities. The results of the analysis are reported in Chapter 3 and 4, and the database is described in Appendix C.
LIMITATIONS OF THE STUDY
In the previous section, we have tried to clearly delimit the scope of the committee's charge. We also acknowledge three significant limitations on our analysis and offer one important caveat. The limitations stem from the nature of
the policies we are studying and from the available data. First, in its current incarnation, standards-based reform is less than 10 years old and, in most states, standards policies and new forms of assessment are still in the early stages of implementation. Consequently, although we can describe state policies as they have been enacted and analyze their underlying assumptions, few systematic data are available on the actual implementation of these policies and, in most cases, it is too early to determine their effects.
Second, the committee did not pursue in depth the entire array of issues related to students with disabilities and standards-based reform. One major omission is a discussion of the costs of reform and effective methods for financing it. Because the implementation of standards-based reform is so recent, there are no comprehensive cost studies available, and even the costs of discrete components such as performance assessments can only be estimated at this time. Similarly, no systematic data are yet available on the effects of alternative methods for financing special education. The committee also lacked the time and resources to consider fully the implications of standards-based reform for special and general education teachers. We do identify areas in which teachers will need additional time and resources; however, we could not lay out the specific content and strategies for providing the additional professional development that teachers will need to adapt their instruction to the standards movement and to ensure that the participation of students with disabilities is consistent with their individual needs.
Third, the nature of research on the effects of different instructional practices limits our study. Studies of special and general education have developed largely independently of one another, conducted by different researchers studying different student populations and publishing in separate journals. As a result, valid inferences are difficult to make across students with and without disabilities because so few studies involve both populations and make systematic comparisons between them or even among those with different types of disabilities. Throughout the report, we note when these limitations apply and suggest how the scope and quality of the research base might be strengthened in the future.
Our caveat is straightforward: because standards-based reform and special education tap fundamental values about how equity should be defined, what constitutes valuable knowledge, and who should decide how children are educated, no consideration of these policies will rest solely on the scientific merits of relevant data. Recent controversies over Goals 2000 and the content of state assessments attest to how politicized the issues have become. Public opinion data suggest that parents and the public are considerably less supportive than are education reformers of the curricular content and pedagogical strategies assumed in most standards policies (Johnson and Immerwahr, 1994). Although there is strong public support for the concept of higher academic standards, there is little agreement on how to achieve them or even what higher standards means. Furthermore, the public seems willing to accept the possibility of negative consequences from
raising standards, such as fewer students graduating from high school. And the public is divided on the appropriateness of including students with disabilities in the general education program (Elam and Rose, 1995).
Although it would be inappropriate for the committee to comment on these value conflicts, we note their intensity because it influences the criteria by which research data are judged by policy makers and the public, and it determines which options for linking standards-based reform and special education will be feasible to implement.
Our hope is that, by presenting a systematic comparison of the two approaches, we can inform national, state, and local deliberations, regardless of which values prevail. One of the major criticisms of education policy making over the past 20 years has been that new policies are typically implemented without regard to prior policies and practices—they are simply layered one atop the other in schools and classrooms (Darling-Hammond, 1990). This report provides an opportunity to stand back and examine how two approaches to improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities might be blended, not as independent and misaligned strata, but as mutually reinforcing foundations.
ORGANIZATION OF THE REPORT
Chapter 2 begins the examination of our four framing questions. Here we compare the policy frameworks supporting standards-based reforms and special education, discuss some of the difficulties of translating policy into practice, and analyze the incentives each framework creates for serving students with disabilities. The vision of standards-based reform is reflected in several federal laws, including Goals 2000 and Title I of the Improving America's Schools Act. Together they provide a variety of incentives to the states to develop more rigorous standards and to implement them through curricula and assessments. It is these state policies that determine how broadly or narrowly standards are defined, what resources are available to implement them locally, and the extent to which students with disabilities are accommodated in instruction and assessment. We therefore examine both federal and state standards policies. In comparing the special education policy framework with standards-based reforms, we examine the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and relevant case law.
In Chapter 3 we describe the enormous heterogeneity that characterizes students with disabilities. We discuss complications in approaches to defining and classifying disability and examine how the population of disabled students varies by social class, ethnicity, and local implementation. The chapter summarizes available data on educational placement, achievement, post-school outcomes, and parental involvement of students with disabilities. It concludes by considering
how the variability of this population may affect their participation in standards-based reforms.
Chapter 4 provides an overview of post-school outcomes, curricular and instructional issues for students with disabilities, and their relationship to standards. We examine the content standards and instructional approaches associated with standards-based reform, comparing how consistent they are with what research indicates are the most effective strategies for teaching students with disabilities and the most desirable post-school outcomes. We also consider whether the academic content standards emphasized in standards-based reform are appropriate for the entire range of students with disabilities and examine the curricular, instructional, legal, and resource implications of their participation in the common standards.
Chapter 5 analyzes the use of large-scale assessments for measuring student progress in mastering the knowledge and skills embodied in state standards and for ensuring that the education system is publicly accountable. The chapter describes the approaches to assessment and accountability found in standards-based reforms and how state assessment systems currently address students with disabilities. In keeping with the committee's charge, the chapter focuses particularly on the accommodations, or nonstandard testing conditions, that might be provided some students with disabilities, how accommodations affect the validity of the assessment, and how the performance of students tested under such conditions is reported. The chapter also considers issues in reporting data for public accountability and the implications of increased participation of students with disabilities in assessments, including resource and legal issues.
Chapter 6 presents the committee's recommendations. In these recommendations we sought to develop a set of guidelines that can be used to formulate a consistent strategy for the participation of students with disabilities in standards-based reform.