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Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform (1997)

Chapter: 3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES

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Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
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3
The Diversity of Students with Disabilities

This chapter describes the tremendous diversity that characterizes students with disabilities. Most of these students are eligible to receive special education services provided by the public schools. Yet, as this chapter shows, one cannot really speak of them as a group in a meaningful way, except perhaps with respect to the rights that all are accorded under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by virtue of their having a disability.

Some students with disabilities are never taken out of general education classrooms; others never enter a regular school building. Some have very mild disabilities observed only in school settings; others have multiple severe disabilities that affect many aspects of their lives. Some spend only minutes each week with a specially trained teacher, others the whole day. Some graduate from high school with a full academic courseload and go on to highly competitive colleges; others drop out of high school entirely; and still others receive special diplomas or certificates of attendance. Some have parents who are deeply involved in advocating and planning their individualized programs; others have parents who have never attended an IEP meeting.

Meaningful discussion of standards, curriculum, assessment, and outcomes cannot occur without some attention to the varied characteristics of these large numbers of children. This chapter examines how their extraordinary diversity complicates efforts to identify and categorize children with disabilities and to design effective educational policies for them. It also analyzes how disability variously affects the school experiences of these students, the roles their parents play in that schooling, and the possible implications for standards-based reform.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
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WHO QUALIFIES FOR SPECIAL EDUCATION?

Identification

The process of identifying students with disabilities is important because it determines who among the general student population is entitled to unique and specific legal and educational rights as well as access to extra resources and services. As explained in Chapter 2, these rights involve extensive due process protections, designed to ensure fundamental fairness in all aspects of the identification and placement of students with disabilities and to prevent misclassification.

Once a child is identified as having a disability, then a determination is made as to whether he or she qualifies for special education and related services. Under the IDEA, eligibility for special education services is based on two criteria: first, the student must meet the criteria for at least one of the 13 disabilities recognized in the IDEA (or the counterpart categories in state law) (Reschly, 1987a) and, second, the student must require special education or related services in order to receive an appropriate education (Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 1982; Reschly, 1987a). According to the most recent data collected by the U.S. Department of Education (1996), approximately 4.7 million children between the ages of 6 and 17 qualified for special education services in school year 1994–95; this represents 10.4 percent of the total student population.

This two-part definition means that not all students with disabilities are eligible to receive special education services. For example, students with medical or physical disabilities do not qualify for special education unless they also demonstrate educational need. These children are still protected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which governs all publicly supported agencies. This statute entitles students with disabilities to reasonable accommodations in educational settings to permit them to overcome impairments in critical life activities—even if they do not qualify for special education services. Currently the number of these students, who are covered by Section 504 but are not in special education, is unknown. 1 Nevertheless, the legal rights accorded them have the potential to affect the implementation of standards-based reform. For example, an increase in the number of Section 504-eligible students requesting accommodated assessments under standards-based reform would complicate interpretations of the meaning of assessment data.

Some children enter kindergarten already identified and receiving special education services. Many others are identified in their first few years of elementary school because they encounter difficulties in general education classrooms.

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Available data about the numbers and characteristics of children with disabilities, which are discussed in this chapter, are collected for IDEA-eligible children and thus do not include noneligible students with disabilities.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

The process of identifying students with disabilities and determining their eligibility for special education typically involves three steps: referral, evaluation, and placement. Referral (usually by teachers) is the primary method through which children begin to be considered for a disability diagnosis. Most of these children are referred by their teachers for "repeatedly poor academic performance or poor social adjustment" (Heller et al., 1982:38). Thus, the performance of these students suggests they may need special education services, but they will qualify only if they are found to have a disability.

The IDEA is explicit and detailed about testing and assessment procedures used to qualify students for special education. A number of legislative provisions are designed to protect students and ensure the fair, nondiscriminatory use of tests. These provisions stipulate that decisions about children must be based on more than a single test, that tests must be validated for the purpose for which they are used, that students must be assessed in all areas related to a suspected disability, and that evaluations must be made by a multidisciplinary team. Children are generally tested in one-to-one situations with various school professionals (e.g., a school psychologist, an occupational therapist, a speech and language therapist) on tests that can be individually adapted to match the child's level. This type of highly individualized testing differs considerably from the large-scale, group-administered assessments usually tied to standards-based reforms.

The costs associated with conducting eligibility and other mandated assessments have raised concern. Data from several finance studies (Chambers and Parrish, 1983; Moore et al., 1988) indicate that these initial assessments, as well as the requisite triennial reevaluations of students, are very expensive, each costing an estimated $2,000 (Chaikind et al., 1993). Furthermore, research indicates that far too often these evaluations are used to classify a student within a specific diagnostic category rather than to determine specific instructional interventions (Merrill, 1990; Shinn et al., 1988; Smith, 1990).

If both the disability diagnosis and special education need are confirmed, then the student has rights to an individualized education program (IEP) designed to improve educational performance and expand opportunities. Evaluation results are used to develop an IEP that specifies the general goals and particular instructional objectives for the child; results are also used to design instruction and related services and to monitor the child's progress toward objectives and goals. A yearly meeting must be held to update and revise the IEP. Every three years, a student goes through a complete reevaluation; a battery of tests and assessments is again given by a multidisciplinary team and an eligibility meeting held to determine whether the student still has a disability and requires special education services.

Thus, students can and do move into and out of the special education system as they pass through the elementary and secondary school years. Little is known about the average length of time students stay in the system, but data indicate considerable movement. Available data suggest that, over a 1-year period at the

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

secondary level, about 4 to 5 percent of eligible students are declassified and return to general education full time (Wagner et al., 1991; U.S. Department of Education, 1996). One longitudinal study of elementary schools in three urban districts suggested a slightly higher declassification rate during elementary school of 17 percent over a 2-year period (Walker et al., 1988).2

National enrollment data by age cohort suggest that enrollments in special education increase substantially between ages 6 and 8, peak for children at ages 9 and 10, and drop off steadily as students get older. This pattern varies, however, across disability categories, with some enrollments remaining relatively stable, whereas others (e.g., speech and language) decrease steadily with increasing age.

Special education referral rates can be affected by other policies and practices in a school system. Some have argued, for example, that, in some schools and districts, policies that raise the consequences tied to test scores have led to increased numbers of students being identified as having a disability (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1992), since special education students, many of whom tend to score lower, are commonly excluded from school-wide reporting of test scores. The availability of other special programs, like remedial reading and Title I services, can affect the number of students referred for special education (Keogh and MacMillan, 1996). Others have suggested that fiscal incentives, such as basing allocations on counts of students with disabilities, can directly influence the number of students who get referred and placed in special education (Mehan, 1995). In a climate of reform aimed at raising academic standards, many are concerned that special education referral rates may go up if children with disabilities are exempted from certain aspects of reform or treated differently for accountability purposes. Unfortunately, at the current time, no systematic data are available on referral or placement rates that would allow monitoring of these trends over time.

Defining Disability

A number of comprehensive systems exist for classifying various kinds of disabilities, and these have influenced classification in special education to varying degrees (American Psychiatric Association, 1994; Luckasson et al., 1992; MacMillan and Reschly, in press; Reschly, 1992; World Health Organization, 1994). There is, however, no official special education classification system that is used uniformly across U.S. states and regions.

Thirteen disabilities are mentioned in the federal IDEA and defined in the accompanying regulations (IDEA 1991, 34 C.F.R. 300.7). Box 3-1 shows the federal definitions of disability categories along with the additional regulatory criteria for SLD. Brief definitions are provided for the following categories of disabilities: autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, mental retar-

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In this study, students classified with speech and language disorders and specific learning disabilities were the most likely to move out of special education.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
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BOX 3-1 Definitions of Disabilities in Federal Regulations

300.7 Children with disabilities

(a)(1) As used in this part the term "children with disabilities" means those children evaluated in accordance with ßß300.530–300.534 as having mental retardation, hearing impairments including deafness, speech or language impairments, visual impairments including blindness, serious emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, deaf-blindness, or multiple disabilities, and who because of those impairments need special education and related services.

(b) The terms used in this definition are defined as follows:

(1) "Autism" means a developmental disability significantly affecting verbal and nonverbal communication and social interaction, generally evident before age 3, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. Other characteristics often associated with autism are engagement in repetitive activities and stereotyped movements, resistance to environmental change or change in daily routines, and unusual responses to sensory experiences. The term does not apply if a child's educational performance is adversely affected primarily because the child has a serious emotional disturbance, as defined in paragraph (b)(9) of this section.

(2) "Deaf-blindness" means concomitant hearing and visual impairments, the combination of which causes such severe communication and other developmental and educational problems that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for children with deafness or children with blindness.

(3) "Deafness" means a hearing impairment that is so severe that the child is impaired in processing linguistic information through hearing, with or without amplification, that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

(4) "Hearing impairment" means an impairment in hearing, whether permanent or fluctuating, that adversely affects a child's educational performance but that is not included under the definition of deafness in this section.

(5) "Mental retardation" means significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior and manifested during the developmental period that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

(6) "Multiple disabilities" means concomitant impairments (such as mental retardation-blindness, mental retardation-orthopedic impairment, etc.), the combination of which causes such severe educational problems that they cannot be accommodated in special education programs solely for one of the impairments. The term does not include deaf-blindness.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

(7) ''Orthopedic impairment" means a severe orthopedic impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes impairments caused by congenital anomaly (e.g., clubfoot, absence of some member, etc.), impairments caused by disease (e.g., poliomyelitis, bone tuberculosis, etc.), and impairments from other causes (e.g., cerebral palsy, amputations, and fractures or burns that cause contractures).

(8) "Other health impairment" means having limited strength, vitality or alertness, due to chronic or acute health problems such as a heart condition, tuberculosis, rheumatic fever, nephritis, asthma, sickle cell anemia, hemophilia, epilepsy, lead poisoning, leukemia, or diabetes that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

(9) "Serious emotional disturbance" is defined as follows:

 

(i) The term means a condition exhibiting one or more of the following characteristics over a long period of time and to a marked degree that adversely affects a child's educational performance—

 

 

(A) An inability to learn that cannot be explained by intellectual, sensory, or health factors;

 

 

(B) An inability to build or maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers and teachers;

 

 

(C) Inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances;

 

 

(D) A general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression; or

 

 

(E) A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal or school problems.

 

(ii) The term includes schizophrenia. The term does not apply to children who are socially maladjusted, unless it is determined that they have a serious emotional disturbance.

(10) "Specific learning disability" means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations. The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia. The term does not apply to children who have learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, of mental retardation, of emotional disturbance, or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.

(11) "Speech or language impairment" means a communication disorder such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment that adversely affects a child's educational performance.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

(12) "Traumatic brain injury" means an acquired injury to the brain caused by an external physical force, resulting in total or partial functional disability or psychosocial impairment, or both, that adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term applies to open or closed head injuries resulting in impairments in one or more areas, such as cognition; language; memory; attention; reasoning; abstract thinking; judgment; problem-solving; sensory, perceptual and motor abilities; psychosocial behavior; physical functions; information processing; and speech. The term does not apply to brain injuries that are congenital or degenerative, or brain injuries induced by birth trauma.

(13) "Visual impairment including blindness" means an impairment in vision that, even with correction, adversely affects a child's educational performance. The term includes both partial sight and blindness.

§ 300.541 Criteria for determining the existence of a specific learning disability.

(a) A team may determine that a child has a specific learning disability if—

(1) The child does not achieve commensurate with his or her age and ability levels in one or more of the areas listed in paragraph (a)(2) of this section, when provided with learning experiences appropriate for the child's age and ability levels; and

(2) The team finds that a child has a severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability in one or more of the following areas—

 

(i) Oral expression;

 

(ii) Listening comprehension;

 

(iii) Written expression;

 

(iv) Basic reading skill;

 

(v) Reading comprehension;

 

(vi) Mathematics calculation; or

 

(vii) Mathematics reasoning.

(b) The team may not identify a child as having a specific learning disability if the severe discrepancy between ability and achievement is primarily the result of—

 

(1) A visual hearing, or motor impairment;

 

(2) Mental retardation;

 

(3) Emotional disturbance; or

 

(4) Environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage.

(20 U.S.C. 1411 note).

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

dation (MR), multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, serious emotional disturbance (SED), specific learning disability (SLD), speech or language impairment (Sp/L), traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment. Classification criteria are not provided for any of these disabilities except learning disabilities (see IDEA 1991, 34 CFR 300.541).

States and school districts do not have to adopt the disability categories in the federal law and regulations. Indeed, classification practices vary significantly from place to place, including names for categories, key dimensions on which the diagnosis is made, and criteria for eligibility determination (Mercer et al., 1990; Patrick and Reschly, 1982; Singer et al., 1989; Smith et al., 1988). These differences have the greatest impact on students with mild disabilities. As a result, it is entirely possible for students with identical characteristics to be diagnosed as having a disability in one state but not in another, or to have the categorical designation change with a move across state lines (Box 3-2).

Many reasons have been given for the high degree of variability in the classification rates. Some of this variation stems from the different ways that the law has been implemented or that professional practice has been conducted in different jurisdictions. States and districts differ in referral practices, effectiveness of child-find programs, and definitions of disability used. In addition, identification rates are affected by factors such as the strength of professional and special interest groups, the proclivity and capacity of parents to seek services, the availability and cost of services, the stigma attached to various disability designations, and the history of litigation in different places (Singer et al., 1989).

Severity of Disabilities

The degree of an individual's disability can range from mild to severe within a category. This means that students who may be considered as having a specific disability, such as learning disability or mental retardation, can be very different from one another. Severity is influenced by: (a) the size of the deficit(s) in behavior along such key dimensions as intelligence, academic achievement, communication/language, motor skills, and emotional adjustment; (b) the number of areas in which there are deficits; and (c) the complexity of developing educational interventions. The adjectives mild, moderate, and severe are usually used to denote the degree of severity of disabilities.

People with mild disabilities typically have smaller deficits on the key dimensions, have deficits in fewer areas, and can function without assistance in most normal daily activities. Most students with mild disabilities demonstrate no evidence of physical or health anomalies that cause deficits in behavior. For this reason, mild disabilities are largely a school-age phenomenon. Identification occurs after school entrance through a preplacement evaluation, which usually occurs because a teacher has referred the child due to severe and chronic achievement problems (Reschly, 1987b). Persons with mild disabilities typically require

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
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BOX 3-2 State Variation in Classification Policies

States use diverse classification practices in special education. The category of mental retardation illustrates some of these differences. In the MR category, enormous differences exist among states in terminology (some of the terms used to refer to mental retardation include mental handicap, mental disability, and significantly limited intellectual capacity), key dimensions (e.g., some states do not include adaptive behavior in the conceptual definition), and classification criteria (e.g., the IQ score criterion varies from a low of 69 to a high of 85).

State differences have the greatest impact on students with mild disabilities; prevalence differences are negligible for the more severe disabilities. Consider these prevalence figures: SLD varies from 2.86 percent in Georgia to 9.27 percent in Massachusetts; MR varies from 0.31 percent in New Jersey to 3.11 percent in Alabama; Sp/L varies from 1.28 percent in Hawaii to 3.94 percent in New Jersey; and SED varies from 0.05 percent in Mississippi to 2.06 percent in Connecticut. To cite another example, the Sp/L prevalence in New York is only 1.36 percent, whereas in the adjacent state of New Jersey it is nearly 4 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 1996:A-40).

The idea that such variations could reflect genuine differences in student populations stretches the imagination. It is highly unlikely that there are over nine times as many students with mental retardation in Alabama as New Jersey; that there are over three times as many students with SLD in Massachusetts as in Georgia; or that there are 40 times as many students with SED in Connecticut as in Mississippi. State prevalence of all disabilities for children and youth ages 6 to 17 vary from a low of 7.34 percent in Hawaii to 14.98 percent in Massachusetts (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). These variations are more likely to be related to unique state-by-state practices regarding how children and youth are identified as disabled than to real differences in student populations.

part-time special education programs that are delivered by special resource teachers or in special classes for part of the school day. During the adult years, the vast majority of these persons will not be officially designated as having a disability and will become self-supporting, independently functioning citizens in the community. Their needs for supportive services as adults are generally intermittent and restricted to particular activities or events.

Because a disability is mild does not mean that it is trivial or that it magically disappears at age 18 or 21. Students with SLD, for example, are seriously impaired in one of the most important developmental tasks in a technologically

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

complex society: acquiring literacy skills and using them to master bodies of knowledge. Poor reading skills in particular constitute formidable barriers to academic progress and significantly limit adult career opportunities.

People with disabilities at the moderate to severe levels typically have a large deficit on at least one of the important behavioral dimensions, as well as moderate to large deficits in one or more of the other dimensions. These deficits tend to have a biological or physiological basis, and affected persons usually carry physical symptoms that influence their appearance. Disabilities at the more severe levels are typically diagnosed initially in the preschool years, often by medical personnel. During the school-age years, people with moderate or severe disabilities typically require assistance with certain daily living activities, such as self-help skills, mobility in the community, basic communication skills, and recreation. Special education programs for these students usually involve extensive assistance, whether in special classes with a very low student-to-teacher ratio (e.g., 5:1) or in general education classrooms with a full-time teacher or aide. Most people with disabilities at the moderate or severe level require lifelong assistance with one or more of the everyday activities of work, recreation, mobility, and self-care.

People with disabilities at the most severe level typically have large deficits, often in two or more areas, that result in poor educational performance and require extensive and consistent support. Mental retardation is often a primary disability for people with severe multiple disabilities; for example, approximately 60 percent of people with cerebral palsy have mental retardation (Batshaw and Perret, 1986). In educational contexts, the focus of defining severe disabilities has moved from describing negative behaviors (e.g., self-mutilation, self-stimulation, loss of contact with reality) to describing developmental levels of functioning. This latter approach emphasizes the discrepancy between what is expected in "normal development" and actual student performance (e.g., a student's developmental level is 50 percent lower than what is expected for his or her chronological age) (Abt Associates, 1974; Justen, 1976). Individuals with the most severe disabilities are far below normal development and require continuing assistance, in childhood and adult years, with very basic self-survival skills.

Disability Dimensions

The 13 disability categories in the federal regulations are based to varying degrees on 8 dimensions of behavior or individual characteristics: academic achievement, intelligence, adaptive behavior, emotional adjustment, communication/language, sensory status, motor skills, and health status, (Reschly, 1987b). As explained in the following pages, each dimension affects how children are identified and served in special education.

Academic Achievement. Assessment of achievement in such core academic

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

subjects as reading, writing, and math is nearly always part of the full and individual evaluation provided to children referred for special education, regardless of which of the 13 categories of disability is being considered. A high percentage of children in special education exhibit low achievement in at least one academic area.

Achievement as a dimension of disability has important implications for standards-based reform. Serious debate exists about the relative importance of traditional academic literacy skills for students with severe disabilities and for many middle- and high-school-age students with moderate and mild disabilities. The majority of students with severe disabilities will not reach basic levels of academic literacy as they are understood in standards-based reforms. Furthermore, students with mild disabilities may reach plateaus in academic achievement, or, if not actual plateaus, then stages in skill acquisition, at which further progress is extremely slow. As we discuss in Chapter 4, the low achievement of some children with disabilities raises difficult issues about whether an academically oriented curriculum is the most appropriate emphasis, particularly if it takes time away from teaching social and functional competencies and vocational skills.

Intelligence. General intellectual functioning is typically assessed as part of the evaluation for special education, usually with a standardized IQ test individually administered by a psychologist. Intellectual functioning is a key criteria for classifying students as MR and SLD in most states. Federal regulations define mental retardation as "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning existing concurrently with deficits in adaptive behavior" (34 CFR 300.7). Federal regulations for diagnosing specific learning disabilities require that there be a "severe discrepancy between achievement and intellectual ability" (34 CFR 300.541); most states have established procedures for determining what constitutes a severe discrepancy. Recent research, however, has challenged the validity of using an intelligence-achievement discrepancy to define SLD (see Morison et al., 1996).

Although the meaning of the construct of intelligence continues to provoke debate, especially as it relates to achievement, some features of intelligence are reasonably well established. Intelligence is related to efficiency in information processing, the ability to learn abstract concepts, the spontaneous use of strategies to acquire and remember information and solve problems, and the capability to learn from incomplete instruction. Generally the lower the levels of intelligence (and achievement), the greater the need for more concrete, less abstract instruction that proceeds in small steps and includes ample demonstration and practice (Campione et al., 1982; Neisser et al., 1996). Intelligence is related to school performance and academic achievement, but the relationships are complex and difficult to separate (Neisser et al., 1996). Intelligence is both a predic-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

tor and an outcome of school achievement—that is, schooling both affects and is affected by general intellectual functioning.3

Adaptive Behavior. Adaptive behavior, also referred to as adaptive skills or social competencies, is traditionally defined as "the effectiveness or degree with which individuals meet the standards of personal independence and social responsibility expected for age and cultural group" (Grossman, 1983:1). Included in this concept are domains of behavior such as: (1) independent functioning—examples at the most basic level include toileting, eating, dressing, avoiding danger, getting around the community, handling money wisely; (2) social functioning—e.g., orienting to human contact, complying with rules and expectations, refraining from behaviors that destroy property or injure others, working cooperatively; (3) functional academics—e.g., acquiring language to communicate needs and to interact with others, using basic literacy skills in everyday activities, mastering concepts of time and number used in everyday environments; and (4) vocational-occupational skills—e.g., exhibiting good work habits and positive attitudes, mastering skills related to employment.

The mental retardation diagnosis explicitly requires a determination of adaptive behavior deficits and cannot be made solely on the basis of an IQ score. Diagnosis of SED also involves adaptive behavior domains; conduct disorders involving aggression against persons and property and refusal to comply with societal norms and rules are the most frequent kind of SED. Because adaptive behavior expectations vary by age, setting, and cultural group, they are sometimes difficult to assess. But adaptive behavior is essential to every disability category, and adaptive behavior competencies are widely recognized as crucial to the adjustment of students with disabilities, especially as they mature into adults.

Emotional Adjustment. Emotional adjustment involves attitudes, values, and emotions that can facilitate or interfere with academic and social behaviors in a variety of settings. A relatively small number of students with SED have problems with emotional adjustment called internalizing disorders. These disorders involve patterns of behavior, such as excessive anxiety, dysphoric mood, and repetitive ritualistic behaviors, that cause distress to the individual and interfere with everyday performance. Depending on state and local practices, children and youth with internalizing disorders may receive related services such as counseling.

Communication/Language. Communication skills and language development are central to several disabilities, particularly the Sp/L category. Sp/L disorders vary markedly, from relatively straightforward misarticulation difficulties

3  

Because the dimensions of achievement and intelligence are so closely related, we use the term cognitive disability throughout the rest of the report to describe disabilities that affect students' learning and thinking processes.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

(such as slurring "s" and "sh" sounds) that may be resolved through short-term treatment, to severe stuttering that markedly interferes with normal communication and requires years of speech therapy. Understanding and using language to communicate also is crucial to determining the level of disability in other categories and is a central focus of special education programming for many students with disabilities.

Sensory Status. Sensory status, particularly auditory and visual acuity, is the basis for the disability categories of deafness, hearing impairment, deaf-blindness, and visual impairment. Screening for sensory deficits is routinely included in full and individual evaluations for special education. Sensory deficits often accompany other disabilities, especially at the multiple and/or severe levels.

Motor Skills. Special education and related services are often needed by students with motor disabilities to compensate for their motor limitations and to treat associated problems such as speech production difficulties. Motor skills limitations also can influence participation in activities associated with the general education curriculum and standards-based reform. For example, many students with motor limitations have difficulties with the response formats required on standards-based assessments (e.g., group-administered paper-and-pencil tests).

Health Status. A wide variety of health problems, some of which are life threatening, can result in a disability diagnosis and referral to special education. Some students are so ill that they cannot participate in the general school curriculum or activities associated with standards-based reform. Students with severe head injuries, for example, who are attempting to regain very basic cognitive functions such as awareness and memory, can hardly be expected to participate meaningfully in standards-based reforms. A few students have health problems that are so severe and chronic that their special education and related services do not incorporate any skills that would be included in the general education curriculum at the lowest grade levels.

Different Models of Disability

The current special education classification system mixes two different ways of thinking about the nature and origin of disabilities: the medical and the social system models of deviance (Mercer, 1979; Reschly, 1987b). Each model implies different assumptions about etiology, identification, assessment, and treatment.

The medical model generally applies to disabilities that have known biological bases; retinopathy caused by premature birth as a cause of blindness is an example (Mercer, 1979; Reschly, 1987b). Medical model disabilities are generally lifelong, can be observed across most if not all social roles and settings, and are likely to be identified regardless of cultural context. Medical model disabilities typically are identified by medical personnel during the preschool years, of-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

ten in the first year of life. Treatment focuses on eliminating the underlying cause, if possible, or compensating for its effects on daily activities to the extent feasible.

In contrast, the social system model typically refers to disabilities that are socially constructed and relevant to some but not all settings. In the social system model, disorders are defined as discrepancies from expected patterns or normative standards of performance on important dimensions of behavior. In children, many such disabilities are evident only after a child enters school and begins to have difficulty with academic learning. Statistical indices such as percentile ranks and discrepancy scores are used to quantify the amount of divergence from age or grade-level averages. Often a point or two in these discrepancy scores can determine whether a student receives special education services and whether additional thousands of dollars are spent on the child's education.

The 13 disability categories in the IDEA reflect to varying degrees these two models of deviance. The medical model is useful for describing such categories as deafness, deaf-blindness, hearing impairment, multiple disabilities, other health impairment, traumatic brain injury, visual impairment, and the moderate or severe levels of mental retardation. Nearly all of the children and youth with these types of impairments have identifiable biological and observable physiological anomalies that are permanent and that have a direct relationship to impairments in behavior.

Disabilities at the mild level in the categories of SLD, Sp/L, SED, and MR are understood best from the social system model of deviance because there is no clearly identifiable biological basis for the disability; the impairments in behavior are restricted to particular roles in specific contexts, and effective treatment focuses on symptoms rather than underlying causes.

The mixture of the medical and social system models has the most serious consequences in the area of SLD; there often is confusion over the relative importance of underlying causes and symptoms in the assessment, identification, and treatment of this disability. The conceptualization of learning disabilities as a problem with psychological processing emerged in the 1960s. Various definitions have evolved over time, and most incorporate the ideas that learning disabilities (1) are different from other achievement-related conditions such as mental retardation or slowness in learning, (2) can be expressed as unexpected difficulties in a range of basic ability domains, such as thinking and spoken or written language, and (3) are caused by something within the individual, often presumed to be an underlying neurological condition (Keogh and MacMillan, 1996). The most widely used definition states that SLD is "a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language" and refers to such conditions as "perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia" (Mercer et al., 1990; IDEA, 34 CFR 300.7[a][10). However, the majority of students with SLD do not show identifiable signs of neurological deficits (Hammill, 1990). Further-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

more, recent research on at least one kind of reading disability challenges the notion that it is a discrete diagnostic entity; instead, these authors (Shaywitz et al., 1992:148) argue that:

Dyslexia occurs along a continuum that blends imperceptibly with normal reading ability. These results indicate that no distinct cutoff point exists to distinguish children with dyslexia clearly from children with normal reading ability; rather, the dyslexic children simply represent the lower portion of the continuum of reading capabilities.

Different perspectives on the definitions and key criteria are not the only complication in the area of learning disabilities. Problems in its implementation in the school context include unsound diagnostic practices, unreliable measures, different choices of discrepancy models for operationalizing the definition, different understandings of SLD by those making referrals, and preference for the SLD diagnosis because it incurs less stigma than some other categories (Keogh and MacMillan, 1996; Lyon, 1996). Thus, "the heterogeneity evident in any identified group of learning disabled individuals is a function of both conceptual and operational inconsistencies" (Keogh and MacMillan, 1996:316).

Eligibility Policy

Proper diagnosis of disabilities is complicated by the nature of current policy requirements, especially the all or none character of eligibility—that is, a student must be deemed either to have or not to have a disability for educational purposes. In fact, the capabilities and needs of many students do not fit into such a neat dichotomy but rather exist on a broad continuum, often lacking clear demarcations between students with disabilities and those without.

Problems with the current classification system were recognized at least 20 years ago in the massive federally funded exceptional child classification project. Hobbs (1975:102) characterized the conventional categories and the procedures for arriving at them as follows:

They are imprecise: They say too little, and they say too much. They suggest only vaguely the kind of help a child may need, and they tend to describe conditions in negative terms. Generally, negative labels affect the child's self concept in a negative way, and probably do more harm than good.

Some of the assumptions behind the current categorization system were again questioned in a later report issued by a National Research Council panel on selection and placement of students in programs for the mentally retarded (Heller et al., 1982:21):

To what extent must children be classified and labeled according to a generic class of deficiencies in order to receive special education services? Diagnostic categories such as EMR [educable mentally retarded] may be more an administrative convenience than an educational necessity, allowing schools to count the

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

number of children in this and other special programs in accord with federal requirements. If categorical labels are required for administrative purposes, they could be chosen to reflect the educational services provided, thereby emphasizing the responsibilities of school systems rather than the failings of the child.

Following are brief descriptions of some of the problems involved in classifying disabilities, with selected references for further reading.

Social Stigma

The degree to which classification or labeling, as it is sometimes called, produces lifelong, permanent negative effects is still disputed. Certainly, the more extreme claims made by critics of classification procedures in the late 1960s and early 1970s (e.g., Mercer, 1973) are not supported by empirical evidence. Nevertheless, the common names of MR and SED used for students with those disabilities have negative connotations. An earlier, now classic, review (MacMillan et al., 1974) reported two well-established facts concerning the effects of traditional classification categories: there is widespread misunderstanding of their meanings by professionals and the lay public (Goodman, 1989) and the bearers of labels find the classification uncomfortable and, very often, objectionable (Jenkins and Heinen, 1989). Concerns about the effects of classification on individuals have led to calls for the elimination of the common classification categories (National Association of School Psychologists, 1986). A concern for stigmatization has been cited as one of the reasons for the growth in the numbers of children diagnosed as SLD, as this label is thought to be more socially acceptable than MR or SED (Lyon, 1996). Although this literature is complex, one conservative conclusion is that categorical classification should be used as sparingly as possible, should use terms with as few negative connotations as possible, and should focus on skills rather than presumed ''inherent attributes" or internal characteristics of the individual.

Imprecision of Disability Categories

Current diagnoses using traditional categories are frequently unreliable, for several reasons. First, the characteristics of students in such categories as SLD and MMR (mild mental retardation) often do overlap (Epps et al., 1984; Gajar, 1979; Kavale, 1980; Neisworth and Greer, 1975; Shinn et al., 1986; Ysseldyke et al., 1982a). Second, teachers vary in their tolerance for student differences, and different screening and placement practices exist within and between districts (Hersh and Walker, 1983; MacMillan et al., 1980). Third, the quality of the assessment measures varies, and most cannot reliably differentiate among the high-incidence populations of SLD, SED, and MMR (Coles, 1978; Shepard, 1983; Ysseldyke et al., 1983). Fourth, as explained above, classification criteria vary among and within states. A number of researchers have long noted the degree of

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

overlap among these categories and have suggested that efforts to maintain a strict categorical approach to programming is neither feasible nor necessarily educationally advantageous (Gajar, 1979; Hallahan and Kauffman, 1977; MacMillan and Hendrick, 1993; Reschly, 1988).

Research also suggests that current disability classifications have some limitations in validity. A disability category is considered valid if it provides information that is relevant to prevention and/or to decisions about kinds and outcomes of treatment. A category is also considered valid if the information used to classify the student is useful to the individual's prognosis or outcomes.

For example, information needed to determine whether a student is eligible to be classified as SLD, MMR, or SED typically does not relate closely to treatment decisions, especially decisions about the student's general educational goals, specific objectives, or educational interventions, nor is it particularly useful in evaluating outcomes. Some evidence now suggests that the educational interventions provided to students in the different disability categories are far more alike than different (Algozzine et al., 1988; Boucher and Deno, 1979; Epps and Tindal, 1987; Haynes and Jenkins, 1986; Jenkins and Heinen, 1989; Jenkins et al., 1988). This same research and other reviews also indicate that traditional categories do not have a demonstrable relationship to specific outcomes or to prognoses (Epps and Tindal, 1987; Kavale, 1990; Kavale and Glass, 1982).

Another difficult question, one that has important implications for eligibility policy, is whether some students with mild cognitive disabilities can be reliably and validly distinguished from other students who are alternately termed "low achieving," "slow learners," or "educationally disadvantaged." As noted earlier, these categorizations and distinctions are not implemented reliably in many places. Under current practice, although it is virtually impossible for a student whose achievement level is average or near average to be diagnosed in a category like SLD, it is not clear-cut how to distinguish between various degrees of below-average achievement and SLD or MMR.

Research evidence that could guide these decisions is mixed. For example, a growing body of evidence indicates that a significant number of students identified as SLD do not differ on any psychometric or functional dimensions from other low-achieving students (Keogh, 1990; Ysseldyke et al., 1982a; Shaywitz et al., 1992; Lyon, 1996). Other researchers, however, have found that reliable and large differences exist on multiple dimensions between students who are identified as SLD and low-achieving students who are not so identified (Bursuck, 1989; Kavale et al., 1994; Merrill, 1990; Shinn et al., 1986; Tur-Kaspa and Bryan, 1994).

Similarly, research evidence is mixed on whether the two groups respond differently to educational treatments. Some studies have indicated that effective instructional programming or psychological treatment uses the same principles and often the same procedures regardless of whether the student is classified SLD, MMR, SED, slow learner, or educationally disadvantaged (Carter, 1984; Epps and Tindal, 1987). Other research has suggested that SLD and low-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

achieving non-SLD learners show differential responses to general education treatments (Fuchs et al., 1994; Fuchs et al., in press; Tateyama-Sniezek, 1990).

The validity of a given classification is strongly related to the use or purpose to which the category is put. Our discussion has mentioned the importance of a valid taxonomy for two different purposes: making eligibility determinations and making treatment decisions. As described earlier, evidence suggests that the existing classification system largely serves the first purpose at the expense of the second. For this reason, some have suggested moving to a more global category system for determining eligibility (e.g., students with disabilities and other students). But, as this chapter suggests, some method of categorizing different disabilities is important for research purposes, because research indicates that achievement and outcomes vary dramatically for children with different kinds of disabilities and at differing levels of severity. In addition, as Chapter 5 suggests, some kind of taxonomy of functional characteristics related to disability will be needed to design valid assessment accommodations. A taxonomy that is useful or valid for one of these purposes may not necessarily be valid for the others.

A possible resolution to the problem of eligibility and treatment decisions is to establish diagnostic constructs based on a child's placement along a number of continuous dimensions of disability, rather than an either-or dichotomy. Reschly (1996) proposed a model for determining eligibility that would recognize a broad continuum of need and produce levels of funding based on degree of need. In this model, degree of need is ascertained by determining: (1) the number of discrepancies from average levels of performance using the eight dimensions described earlier in this chapter; (2) the size of the discrepancy on each of the dimensions; (3) the complexity of the treatment required (kind of professional assistance and equipment or special environments); and (4) the intensity of the treatment (amount of time per day and the length of treatment) needed to provide an appropriate education. These four variables could also be used as weighting factors in a regression equation that would yield a total number of dollars available to support the special education of a particular student. Approaches like this may result in a more consistent classification system that could be implemented at all stages of the special education process, including screening, prereferral intervention, classification, programming, and funding.

The variety of issues surrounding eligibility has prompted calls for a more flexible taxonomy. Congress and the Clinton administration have considered proposals to use a generic category, such as "developmentally delayed," for children through age 9, which in effect would eliminate the federal requirement for categorization of younger children. Other proposals would abolish the requirement to define disability at all and would send special education funds to states and local districts based only on some proportion of the school-age population, to be used for whichever children they see fit. But, although the difficulties with current eligibility policy and practice are widely acknowledged within special education, there is little consensus surrounding the solutions.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

In sum, there is no single accepted taxonomy, or classification system, for identifying which children have disabilities or describing the functional characteristics of various disability dimensions. The categories specified in federal regulations are general and are not universally used. The most commonly used taxonomies combine medical and social approaches in ways that are not always clear-cut. Nevertheless, some national data are available about the numbers and characteristics of children in each of the 13 federal categories. These data are reviewed in the next section.

STUDENTS AND SCHOOLING CHARACTERISTICS

Available data on the number of students with different kinds of disabilities come almost exclusively from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education. These data are collected on a yearly basis from states and aggregate the number of children being served in special education programs across the 13 categories of disability.4 There are no other population-based data on the prevalence of disabilities among children against which to compare the OSEP data. Although other kinds of national surveys have been done, they often rely on parent reports of disability characteristics and specific educational problems and do not provide reliable prevalence estimates (Lewit and Baker, 1996).

Table 3-1 provides a summary of disabilities by key category for children ages 6–11 and 12–17 for school year 1994–95 (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).5 Several important trends can be identified from the table. The prevalence of disabilities varies by age and category. The prevalence of Sp/L disabilities declines substantially in the older age interval. SLD is the most frequently occurring disability at both age intervals, and it is particularly prominent at the 12–17 age interval. Approximately 90 percent of the children classified as having disabilities in school settings are accounted for by just 4 of the 13 categories: SLD, Sp/L, MR, and SED. Specific learning disabilities now account for over half of all students classified as having disabilities. Indeed, the SLD category has grown substantially since 1976, when the department began collecting classification data.

Although one disability is usually designated to be the primary disability (and thus a student is counted in that category in Table 3-1), many students have

4  

State counts of the total number of children served under the IDEA on December 1 of each school year (as reported in the Annual Reports to Congress on the IDEA) are auditable because they are used to provide IDEA, Part B, monies to states. As a result, states believe these total counts are highly accurate. In contrast, states define their own eligibility criteria for each disability category; although the data are aggregated across states to get national totals in each of the 13 categories, the comparability of characteristics of students in each category is unknown.

5  

The data discussed here apply only to students ages 6–17 with disabilities who are served under Part B of the IDEA.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

TABLE 3-1 School-Age Children with Disabilities, 1994–95 (percentages in parentheses)

Category

Ages 6-11

Ages 12-17

Total

Percentage of Overall

Population

State Ranges (%)

SLD

1,040,972 (41.39)

1,345,657 (62.58)

2,386,629 (51.16)

5.34

2.86 to 9.27 (GA) (MA)

Sp/L

906,380 (36.03)

110,937 (5.16)

1,017,317 (21.80)

2.28

1.28 to 3.94 (HI) (NJ)

MR

228,952 (9.10)

278,676 (12.96)

507,628 (10.88)

1.14

0.31 to 3.11 (NJ) (AL)

SED

144,668 (5.75)

260,251 (12.10)

404,919 (8.68)

0.91

0.05 to 2.06 (MS) (CT)

Other

194,171 (7.72)

154,615 (7.19)

348,786 (7.48)

0.78

 

Total

2,515,143 (100)

2,150,136 (100)

4,665,279 (100)

10.45

7.34 to 14.98 (HI) (MA)

NOTES: The data in this table were compiled from U.S. Department of Education (1996: Tables AA3, AA4, and AA13) for the 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. The percentages are based on a total estimated enrollment of children age 6–17 of 44,643,818.

SLD = specific learning disability; Sp/L = speech or language impairment; MR = mental retardation; and SED = serious emotional disturbance.

"Other" is the prevalence of autism, deaf-blindness, deafness, hearing impairment, multiple disabilities, orthopedic impairment, other health impairment, traumatic brain injury, and visual impairment.

more than one disability—19 percent, according to one nationally representative study of secondary school youth with disabilities. The most frequently reported additional disabilities in that study were mental retardation and speech impairment (Wagner et al., 1991).

Although there are wide variations among students in each of the 13 categories of disabilities, some general trends occur. The high-incidence disabilities such as SLD and Sp/L are nearly always mild. The level of disabilities in MR and SED can vary from mild to severe; however, at least half of the students with MR and SED function at the mild level (Grosenick et al., 1987; Kauffman et al., 1987; MacMillan, 1988). In contrast, the disabilities in the category of "other" in Table 3-1, which account for about 7 percent of the school-age population with disabilities and about 1 percent of the overall population, are much more likely to cause moderate or severe levels of impairment. These include the categories of autism,

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

deaf-blindness, orthopedic impairment, multiple disabilities, hearing impairment, visual impairment, traumatic brain injury, and other health impairments.

Characteristics Related to Disability Status

Other than age, OSEP does not collect any demographic information from the states concerning students with disabilities. The data that exist come from other sources.

Most data on school-referred samples of children indicate that boys are identified for special education at higher rates than girls (Heller et al., 1982; Wenger et al., 1996). For example, about two-thirds of the sample of secondary students with disabilities identified for the National Longitudinal Transitional Study of Special Education Students (NLTS) were male (Wagner et al., 1991); only in the categories of deaf-blindness and hearing impairment was the gender distribution approximately equal. However, recent data using clinically identified samples of students suggest that approximately the same number of girls and boys are identified when functional characteristics are assessed (e.g., Lyon, 1996).

Since the 1960s, there have been concerns about higher proportions of minority children being identified as having disabilities, particularly for the category of mental retardation. This concern about overrepresentation of minorities provoked numerous cases in which the federal courts scrutinized the professional practices of special educators and school psychologists, as well as the validity of IQ tests in making disability diagnoses (see Morison et al., 1996).

The only national data regarding race/ethnicity and disability category are collected by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education. Table 3-2 presents data from the 1978, 1986, and 1990 OCR surveys of school districts. These data should be viewed with an understanding that they are not a representative sample, do not use the same sampling methodology over time, and do not include all 13 IDEA categories.6

Data from the 1990 OCR survey suggest that, over the four categories included in the survey (MMR, SLD, SP/L and SED), 11 percent of both African American and Native American children receive special education services; this is somewhat higher than identification rates of other racial/ethnic groups (9.5 percent of whites, 8 percent of Hispanics, and 4 percent of Asian/Pacific Island-

6  

Although the OCR sampling unit is the school district, OCR surveys are not a representative sample of school districts in the United States because the sampling includes all of the "large" districts and a sample of "smaller" districts. Furthermore, the OCR sampling strategy has changed over the surveys reported in Table 3-2, and it is impossible to determine with certainty the effects of these changes on the representativeness of the OCR results. Finally, OCR collects data for only 5 of the 13 categories recognized in the IDEA. The most emphasis is placed on three "judgmental categories" (mental retardation, specific learning disability, and serious emotional disturbance), that is, the categories in which a degree of professional judgment is required in diagnostic decision making (Gelb and Mizokawa, 1986).

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

TABLE 3-2 Percentages of African American, Hispanic, and White Students Classified with Mild Disabilities

 

 

Disability Category

Year and Ethnic Category

MMR

SLD

SED

Total

1978

African American

3.46

2.23

0.50

6.19

Hispanic

0.98

2.58

0.29

3.85

White

1.07

2.32

0.29

3.68

1986

African American

2.30

4.43

1.04

7.77

Hispanic

0.56

4.31

0.46

5.33

White

0.87

4.29

0.57

5.73

1990

African American

2.10

4.95

0.89

7.94

Hispanic

0.65

4.68

0.33

5.66

White

0.81

4.97

0.69

6.47

NOTE: Data in the table represent the percentage of the total number of students in each ethnic minority group who are classified in the particular category given. MMR= mild mental retardation; SLD= specific learning disability; and SED= serious emotional disturbance.

SOURCE: 1978 data based on Finn (1982:324–330). 1986 data based on analyses by Reschly and Wilson (1990), using 1986 OCR survey data compiled by the National Council of Advocates for Students. 1990 data based on U.S. Department of Education (1994:198, 201, 202).

ers). Data across time suggest that, although overrepresentation of African American children in some categories still occurs, it has decreased in the past 20 years.

Several trends regarding minority participation in special education are apparent from the data on African American, Hispanic, and white students presented in Table 3-2. The overall rates of identification in these mild categories have increased for all three racial/ethnic groups since 1978; the biggest proportional increases have occurred for white children (from under 4 percent identified in 1978 to over 6 percent in 1990). The most recent data suggest that patterns of disproportion vary by disability category. The most common disability across all three racial/ethnic groups is SLD, with approximately similar rates for each group (just under 5 percent of all students in 1990). Hispanic children show the lowest rates of identification across all three mild disability categories. Most of the overrepresentation of African American children is due to the larger percentage labeled MMR, although African American children also show slightly higher rates of identification as SED.

Some analysts have argued that other variables, such as socioeconomic status and poverty status, which are confounded with race and ethnicity, may account for at least some of the variation in special education identification rates.

Poverty has long been associated with special education placement rates (e.g.,

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

Dunn, 1968). It is rare, however, to find analyses and publication of data concerning the actual relationship of poverty to the incidence of disabilities and special education placement. Appropriate data for these analyses were available from four school districts (Coalition to Save Our Children v. Board of Education et al., U.S. District Court, District of Delaware, Civil action no. 56-1816-1822, 1994). In all four districts, both African American and white students who were poor, as gauged by eligibility for subsidized school lunch, were much more likely to be classified as disabled and placed in special education. In three of the four districts, African American and white students in poverty circumstances had essentially the same rates of diagnosis for and placement in special education—about 19 percent on average. In the four districts, children who were not eligible for subsidized lunch were placed in special education at much lower rates—ranging from 7.3 to 9.2 percent for African Americans and from 5.3 to 7.3 percent for whites; even so, the placement rates for nonpoor African American students were slightly higher. Poverty is a plausible explanation for much of the special education overrepresentation of minority children, although additional studies are needed on the relationship of poverty to disability diagnosis and special education placement.

Data from the NLTS, a longitudinal study of secondary school youth with disabilities, provides data on several socioeconomic and household characteristics. Table 3-3 presents some of these data as well as approximately comparable numbers for the general population (Wagner et al., 1991). These data suggest that students with disabilities are more socioeconomically disadvantaged than the general population—that is, more likely to come from single-parent households, to have a head of household with lower educational attainment, and to have lower household incomes.

Educational Placement

Having a disability, mild or severe, can affect a child's schooling in many ways. It can affect where children are educated, whether they have the same goals for schooling as children without disabilities, and whether they participate in all of the general education curriculum, some of it, or none. Furthermore, it can influence whether they can be taught by the same methods and with the same tools and equipment as other students, and whether they can be evaluated in the same ways. Many children with disabilities work toward the same high school diploma as other students, whereas some will seek a different credential or certificate of completion.

Very little systematic, representative data exist that describe the range and degree to which students with disabilities participate in the various aspects of general education. In part this is because individualized programs are the hallmark of special education services, making it hard to collect and aggregate data systematically about the school experiences of these students. In addition, re-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

TABLE 3-3 Socioeconomic Characteristics of Secondary School Youth with Disabilities and Youth in the General Population

 

Youth with Disabilitiesa

 

Socioeconomic Characteristics

%

Standard Error

Percentage of Youth in the General Populationb

Education of household head

Less than high school

41.0

1.5

22.3

High school graduate

36.0

1.4

38.8

Some college/2-year degree

14.0

1.0

17.8

4 year degree or more

8.9

0.9

21.1

 

n = 6,650

 

 

Annual household income

Under $12,000

34.8

1.5

18.2c

$12,000 to $24,999

33.5

1.5

20.6

$25,000 to $37,999

16.2

1.2

25.4

$38,000 or more

15.4

1.1

35.8

 

n = 6,092

 

 

Receiving public benefits

Food Stamps

23.7

1.2

12.9d

Medicaid or similar coverage

21.6

1.2

12.6d

AFDC

12.5

1.0

12.6e

 

n = 6,631

 

 

Living in single parent households

36.8

1.4

25.6b

 

n = 6,385

 

 

a Data on youth with disabilities are from the NLTS.

b U.S. Bureau of Census (1988:Table 9, pp.45 IT). Data refer to youth ages 12 to 17 and living with at least one parent in March 1987.

c Note that categorical boundaries are set at $12,500, $25,000, and $40,000 rather than $12,000, $25,000, and $38,000.

d U.S. Department of Education (1988:34). Percentage of households with youth ages 0 to 18 (not youth ages 0 to 18 in households) in 1985.

e U.S. Department of Education (1988:32). Percent of youth ages 0-17 in 1985.

SOURCE: Adapted from: Wagner et al. (1991).

search is scarce on the longitudinal progress and development of students with disabilities, partly because they have been left out of large-scale longitudinal studies and databases or, in cases of mild disabilities, have been included but with no information on disability status. One analysis of major national education databases (such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the National Education Longitudinal Study) estimated that 40 to 50 percent of all school-age students with disabilities are excluded from these samples. Furthermore, exclu-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

sion criteria vary and exclusion rates are often not reported systematically (McGrew et al., 1993). In addition, the lack of consistent and reliable disability categories within and across studies makes it especially difficult to analyze how longitudinal pathways may vary by disability and to compare results from study to study (McGrew et al., 1995).

Among the important decisions made during the instructional planning and IEP development process are decisions about where the child will receive services. Some children need special education services in only one or two academic skill areas (e.g., spelling and written language), whereas others have IEPs that cover academic, behavioral, vocational, and social skill domains. For many children, then, placement decisions vary by skill or goal areas.

Views about the optimal educational settings for children with various kinds of disabilities differ. Over the past several decades, policies have shifted regarding whether students with disabilities should be educated in special or regular classrooms. Although since 1975, the IDEA has required that each student with a disability be provided with a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (see Chapter 2), for many students with disabilities, debate still continues over what the most appropriate placement is. In addition, it is important to remember that "regular education is not one setting but many different settings that vary considerably from one classroom to the next" (Hebbeler, 1993:1–3). Furthermore, where a child is placed is not necessarily related to what curriculum and instruction he or she receives.

Data collected from all states for the 1993–94 school year (reported in Table 3-4) indicate that over 95 percent of students with disabilities served under the IDEA were served in regular school buildings (U.S. Department of Education, 1996), a slight increase since 1977, when data were first collected (Sawyer et al., 1994). The remaining 4.4 percent of students receive their education in either a separate day school, a residential facility, a hospital, or a homebound program. Students diagnosed with specific learning disabilities or speech/language impairments were the least likely to be placed outside the regular school building.

In a regular school building, students may receive services in one of several places: some are served largely in regular classrooms, others spend a significant part of their day in special education resource rooms, and still others spend the majority of their day in separate, self-contained special education classrooms. Although the data are reported in very broad categories and by somewhat different methods, aggregated state child count data give a general national picture of current placement trends (U.S. Department of Education, 1996).7 As Table 3-4

7  

The intent of the placement data collected as required by Section 618 of the IDEA is to assess the extent to which students with disabilities are being served with their peers without disabilities. Because of state-regulated data collections and specific service configurations used by states, some states crosswalk their placement data with the OSEP placement categories; as a result, despite extensive federal support and technical assistance, the placement data reported in the Annual Report to Congress are less reliable than is the total count of students receiving special education under the IDEA.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

TABLE 3-4 Educational Environments for Students with Disabilities 1993-1994 (percentage)

 

 

Regular School Buildings

 

 

Separate School

Separate Class (less than 40% of the day in regular classroom)

Resource Room (40–79% of the day in regular classroom)

Regular Class (at least 80% of the day)

All Disabilities

4.4

22.7

29.4

43.4

6–11-year-olds

2.5

19.3

24.8

53.5

12–17-year-olds

5.6

25.9

35.2

33.3

Specific learning disabilities

0.8

18.8

41.0

39.3

Speech/language

0.4

4.5

7.6

87.5

Mental retardation

8.3

57.0

26.2

8.6

Serious emotional disturbance

18.5

35.3

25.8

20.5

Multiple disabilities

27.1

44.1

19.7

9.0

Hearing impairments

18.7

30.6

20.0

30.6

Orthopedic impairments

8.7

33.3

20.7

37.4

Other health impairments

11.6

21.3

27.0

40.0

Visual impairments

15.3

18.3

21.3

45.2

Autism

27.8

54.5

8.1

9.6

Deaf/blindness

50.1

34.2

7.9

7.8

Traumatic brain injury

23.9

30.2

23.5

22.3

NOTE: Students age 6–21. Separate schools include separate day schools, residential facilities, and hospital or homebound programs. Children are counted as being served in a separate day school if they spend more than 50 percent of the school day there. This includes private facilities attended by students at public expense.

SOURCE: Tables AB2, AB4, AB5, Eighteenth Annual Report. U.S. Department of Education (1996).

illustrates, in 1993–94, 23 percent of students with disabilities spent the majority of their time (more than 60 percent) in such separate, self-contained classrooms. Another 29 percent spent a substantial portion of their time in special education resource rooms, with the rest of their time spent in the regular classroom. About 43 percent of students with disabilities (or about 2 million) are classified as ''regular classroom" students—meaning that they spend at least 80 percent of their day there. Many of this group of students are likely to be participating in the general education curriculum and in large-scale assessments, although perhaps with accommodations for both.

Data presented in the table indicate that the amount of time spent in the regular classroom varies by disability. Students with autism, deaf-blindness,

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

mental retardation, and multiple disabilities are least likely to spend much time in the regular classroom. Data also suggest that elementary school students (ages 6–11) are more likely to be served for more time in regular classrooms than are secondary school students (ages 12–17).

Reflecting the national policy trend toward greater integration of students with disabilities into the least restrictive environment, placements in the regular education classrooms increased between 1985–86 and 1989–90 for almost all disabilities, and placements in resource rooms declined. Placements of children in separate classrooms in regular school buildings remained essentially unchanged (Sawyer et al., 1994).

Achievement and Post-School Outcomes

Concern over what happens to students with disabilities after they leave school has been growing since the mid-1980s. It began with the publication of a number of follow-up studies that documented the high unemployment and social isolation among former special education students (Edgar et al., 1986; Hasazi et al., 1985; Mithaug et al., 1985). Contributing to the concern was a 1986 Harris poll indicating that unemployment among persons with disabilities was higher and wages lower than for any other group of working-age Americans (Harris and Associates, 1986).

Almost no nationally representative data were available at that time to examine the post-school outcomes of special education programs for students with various kinds of disabilities. Reliable data on special education graduation and dropout rates are particularly difficult to obtain (U.S. Department of Education, 1995; MacMillan et al., 1992). Problems with estimating dropout rates in general are well known; these problems are exacerbated in the case of special education by factors such as the different kinds of diplomas awarded special education students, the return of some portion of special education students to general education during any given year, the tendency of some special education students not to remain with their age or grade cohorts but rather to "age out" of school, and the tendency of others to drop out before ninth grade and never be counted in high school figures.

Because of these concerns, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Education to commission a study of "a sample of handicapped students, encompassing the full range of handicapping conditions, examining their educational progress while in special education and their occupational, educational, and independent living status after graduating from secondary school or otherwise leaving special education" (P.L. 98–199, sec. 618). The NLTS data collection began in 1987 with a sample of more than 8,000 youths with disabilities from more than 300 school districts nationwide. The sample consisted of special education students between the ages of 13 and 21 in the 1985–86 school year. Data were collected in 1987 and again in 1990, drawing on school records, parent and student inter-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

views, and teacher and principal surveys (Wagner et al., 1992). Although these data are now a decade old and were collected prior to the transition requirements of the IDEA, they provide the only representative data about the secondary school achievement and post-school outcomes of special education students.8

High School Graduation

One of the most consistent and worrisome findings of research on educational outcomes has been the high dropout rates among students with disabilities. NLTS data confirm that graduating from high school has been problematic for many; about 8 percent of students with disabilities in the NLTS sample dropped out before the ninth grade, and an additional 30 percent dropped out in grades 9 through 12, a rate higher than the national average of 12 percent for students in the general population. 9 Among those who entered high school, less than one-fourth left before age 17, another third left at 18, and the remainder were 19 or older when they left, indicating that many of these students stayed in school until their age peers graduated. On average, however, dropouts with disabilities had accumulated slightly less than 10 credits, whereas students with disabilities who graduated averaged 22 credits; this low accumulation of credits can be accounted for, at least in part, by the high course failure rate among dropouts (Wagner et al., 1993a:2–9). Fewer than 5 percent of students with disabilities who dropped out of secondary school ever returned to earn a diploma (Wagner, 1993:S-2).

Dropout rates were particularly high for students with serious emotional disturbances; close to half of the SED students who started high school left by dropping out. Slightly less than 30 percent of students with learning disabilities, mental retardation, or health impairments dropped out of high school. Dropout rates were higher for minority students than for whites, and also higher for economically disadvantaged students.

8  

The NLTS sample included 303 school districts serving secondary students in special education and 22 special schools. Districts were selected randomly from the approximately 14,000 U.S. school districts serving secondary students in special education, stratified by region of the country, a measure of district wealth, and student enrollment. Students were selected from rosters of all students in special education in the 1985–86 school year who were in grades 7 though 12. Rosters were stratified into 3 age groups for each of 11 federal special education disability categories, and youth were randomly selected from each age/disability category so that approximately 800 to 1,000 students were selected in each category (except for the deaf-blind category, for which fewer than 100 students were served in the districts sampled). When possible, the study authors created a comparison group of the general population of youth using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Further details regarding the sample and weighting procedures can be found in Wagner et al. (1991) and the sampling design in Javitz and Wagner (1990;1993).

9  

The cohort dropout rate was approximately 12 percent in the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS:88); this cohort is comparable to the NLTS cohort relative to the time period (Aleman, 1995).

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

In some places, special education students do not qualify for the standard high school diploma unless they have met the criteria for that diploma. Nineteen states require a specific number of credits for the diploma and hold students with disabilities to that same standard. In nine states, however, students with disabilities are awarded the standard diploma but without necessarily being held to the general criteria; instead, criteria are modified and the standard diploma is usually offered upon successful completion of the IEP.

In other states, some kind of test must be passed as one of the requirements for a diploma. In 1994–95, 17 states used this type of exam (along with successful completion of required coursework) to determine whether a student earned a standard diploma (Bond et al., 1996). Of the 17 states with graduation exams, 5 allowed special education students with IEPs to receive a graduation diploma without passing, or even taking, the exam. In these states, students with disabilities could be "exempted" from the assessment, yet still receive a diploma if coursework requirements were met (and these could be met through alternative, special education courses) (Thurlow et al., 1995). Analysts are concerned that such "exempt but graduate" policies could lead to increased referrals to special education (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1992) or increases in the number of families moving their children to schools in "easy" graduation states (Thurlow et al., 1995).

Still other states award a modified diploma or certificate of completion upon successful completion of IEP goals and objectives. In a number of places, the certificate option is reserved for students with the most severe or profound disabilities. Many of these options are practices that the state has suggested to local education agencies. Since local education agencies have been given so much discretion in establishing requirements and practices, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly which policies are actually being used (Thurlow et al., 1995).

Data from the NLTS indicate that 75 percent of graduates with disabilities received regular diplomas. Diploma rates varied by disability, from 92 percent of graduates with a speech impairment, to 47 percent of those with mental retardation, to 33 percent of those with multiple impairments (Wagner et al., 1991:5-5).

The various state practices regarding graduation credentials for students with disabilities reflect legitimate differences of opinion about how best to meet the needs of students with disabilities. Some contend that differentiated diplomas perpetuate stigmatization; others argue that granting a standard diploma to students who do not achieve at the level represented by the diploma devalues the credential and corrupts the educational process (Destefano and Metzer, 1991). Further research is needed about the impact of differentiated diplomas on student motivation and employment potential.

Achievement

Data from the NLTS indicate that students with disabilities who earned diplomas had slightly lower grades than their peers, with an average grade point

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

average (GPA) of 2.3 over four years of secondary school compared with 2.6 for the general population. (Note that 7 percent of students in regular schools and 55 percent of those in special schools did not receive course grades; they tended to be the students with the more severe disabilities.) Results also indicate that a sizable number of students with disabilities had markedly poor school performance; for example, close to two-thirds of students who completed high school failed at least one course during their four years. Students had better grades in special education classes than in regular education classes; in addition, failure rates were much higher in regular education classes than in special education classes. Students classified as deaf or orthopedically impaired earned the highest GPAs and failed the fewest courses; those with learning disabilities or emotional disturbances had the highest failure rates and the lowest GPAs (Wagner et al., 1993a:2–8).

Data from the NLTS also suggest that students with disabilities may have had to work harder to graduate. For example, almost one-quarter of graduates had attended summer school or taken an extra semester of high school. On average, graduates with disabilities were older than their peers, suggesting that they had had an extra year of school at some point in their academic careers (Wagner, 1993:S-2).

Preliminary analyses conducted for the committee of the Prospects study, a national study focused on districts with high concentration of Title I students, suggest some interesting findings about achievement levels for students with disabilities in elementary school (see Appendix C for sample description and regression results). When their scores on fourth grade reading and mathematics tests are compared with those of their peers without disabilities, students with disabilities as a group scored considerably lower. However, if their third grade achievement levels are considered using "value-added analyses" that control for prior achievement, they showed the same rates of growth over time, suggesting that they were making progress commensurate with their classmates. Furthermore, when growth in achievement was analyzed for children in five different disability groups (emotional, learning, physical, speech, other), somewhat different results emerge. Students with learning disabilities showed slower rates of growth in reading achievement from third to fourth grade, suggesting that they may be falling further behind their peers (both those with and without disabilities). In contrast, with a broad set of variables included, students with speech disabilities actually showed more improvement in reading than other students (see Appendix C).

These preliminary results suggest that several factors will be important to examine in future research on achievement of students with disabilities. First, type of disability should be considered; overall achievement results, as well as the effects of some other independent variables, were different for children in different categories of disability. Second, longitudinal data should be collected that track change or progress in achievement over time: models that allow examina-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

tion of growth and progress will be key to understanding whether achievement is rising, at what rates, and for which groups of children. Third, serious consideration should be given to using models that control for prior achievement in student assessment systems; this approach will better test the school's incremental contribution to student learning. In general, these results underscore the importance of more research on achievement and schooling that includes students with disabilities.

Postsecondary Education and Employment

The NLTS includes follow-up data on a subsample of about 1,800 students for three to five years after they had been out of school. Overall results of these data suggest much lower rates of participation for youth with disabilities in postsecondary school than in competitive employment (Wagner and Blackorby, 1996).

As Figure 3-1 shows, only 27 percent of youth with disabilities were enrolled in postsecondary education during this 3–5 year period, compared with 68 percent of the general population; among high school graduates, the rates were somewhat higher for both groups (37 and 78 percent, respectively). As the figure illustrates, however, postsecondary enrollment varied considerably for students with different kinds of disabilities—some had attendance rates close to those of the general population. When students with disabilities did go on to postsecondary schooling, it was most likely to be vocational training or attendance at a two-year college; only 4 percent had ever attended a four-year college by the time they had been out of high school for 3 to 5 years.

Youth with disabilities were competitively employed at lower rates than the general population (see Figure 3-1)—57 compared with 69 percent—not so large a gap as for enrollment in postsecondary schooling. 10 Youth in some categories of disability—learning disability and speech impairment—had employment rates at or near that of the overall population. Furthermore, among students with disabilities, high school graduates fared better than dropouts in the competitive job market (65 percent of graduates were employed compared with only 47 percent of dropouts).

Overall, then, available data on the outcomes of secondary schooling for special education students suggest that as a group they do not fare as well as youth in the general population. However, the outcomes vary tremendously within the group, especially by types of disability. This underscores the importance of policies and programs that are responsive to the wide variability of children and youth who fall under the protection of the IDEA. A diverse range of students is likely to require a diversity of educational options.

10  

Sheltered, supported (e.g., wages subsidized by public funds), and volunteer work were not included as competitive paid employment.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

FIGURE 3-1 Postsecondary school enrollment and competitive employment of youths out of school three to five years. Adapted from: Wagner et al. (1992).

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT

Parents play important roles in the schooling of students with disabilities: as contributors to their children's achievement, codevelopers of their children's educational program, and advocates of their children's rights. These roles are likely to become even more important under standards-based reform, which calls for higher achievement, necessitates additional educational decisions, and may create new legal issues. This section discusses the research evidence on parental involvement for students in general and for those with disabilities, as well as research evidence on parent participation in the special education process.

Effects of Parental Involvement on Achievement

Common sense tells us that higher parental involvement in a child's education should have a positive effect on his or her achievement. In general, research supports this conclusion; however, three complications or limitations arise. First, few studies are national in scope, and those that are, such as High School and Beyond (HSB) and the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS), provide information primarily at the high school level. We report evidence from a new elementary school study, the Prospects study, that offsets this bias. Second, the meaning of parental involvement must be broken down into relevant concepts, each of which may have differential impacts on achievement. For example, parental involvement in school organizations may have a number of positive outcomes for schools, but it may be far enough removed from an individual child's learning to have no direct link with the child's achievement. Or, a measure of the amount of parental contact with schools could indicate that the student is encountering problems in school, and thus could be negatively related to achievement (Muller and Kerbow, 1993:32–34). Third, parental involvement may be correlated with other family characteristics that also affect achievement, such as parental education and family income (e.g., Muller and Kerbow, 1993:Fig. 2.17) and family structure (Lee, 1993)—meaning that careful multivariate analyses that control for other variables are usually required to separate these effects.

Despite the limitations, several recent studies, using national-level data and sophisticated controls for other variables, indicate a positive relationship between parental involvement and achievement of children in general.11 These studies overwhelmingly conclude that parental involvement, measured in terms of organizational involvement, parent-school contacts, parental monitoring of student activities, or parents working with students at home, is positively related to achievement as measured by standardized test scores, grades, high school completion, and the absence of behavioral problems. The one negative correlation was

11  

These include studies of High School and Beyond (Fehrmann et al., 1987; Astone and McLanahan, 1991) and a large set of studies using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (Lee, 1993; Muller, 1995; Sui-Chu and Willms, 1996).

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

for the measure of schools contacting parents, which, as noted above, was associated both with behavioral problems and lower achievement as measured by test scores and grades (Sui-Chu and Willms, 1996:Table 6). In addition, a number of these studies and several others (Milne et al., 1986; Madigan, 1994) found a positive relationship between high parental expectations for their children's education and achievement success.

These conclusions are supported by two other data sets, discussed in the next sections, which allow the examination of parent involvement specifically for students with disabilities.

National Longitudinal Transitional Study of Special Education Students

Parental involvement was measured in the NLTS by teacher ratings of parental involvement in school experiences, such as helping with homework and monitoring school progress. Study results show that students with disabilities whose parents were very involved in their education missed fewer days of school and were significantly less likely to fail a class than their peers with disabilities whose parents were not at all involved (Wagner et al., 1993c:5–9). Controlling for type of disability and other demographic factors, very involved parents were also more likely to see their children with disabilities attend postsecondary academic and vocational schools, become employed in the competitive labor market, and succeed in living independently (Wagner et al., 1993b:3–25).

Parental expectations, as measured by parent ratings of the likelihood that their children would attain specific goals (e.g., independent living, postsecondary schooling, competitive employment) also affect student school success, although the type of disability affected parental expectations.12 Parents who held higher learning expectations for their children with disabilities (again, after controlling for type of disability, family socioeconomic status, and functional skill levels) were rewarded with greater student success in postsecondary enrollment, independent living, and community participation; employment prospects were unaffected. As the NLTS authors noted, "The influence of these aspects of parenting was powerful, more so than most of the other factors we have examined" (Wagner et al., 1993b:3–30).

The Prospects Study

Several relevant measures were obtained from the Prospects parent surveys (see Appendix C for more detail on this study): three questions on parental in-

12  

For example, the authors note that "only 3 percent of youth who scored low on the self-care scale were expected to live away from home unsupervised. Conversely, 84 percent of youth with high scores on the self-care skills scale and 92 percent of youth with high scores on the functional mental skills scale were expected to achieve residential independence" (Wagner et al., 1993c:3–26).

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

volvement (at home, through participation in school organizations, and through attendance at school events), number of school contacts, an index of school satisfaction, and a measure of parental academic expectations for their child. Parents of students with disabilities showed approximately similar levels of involvement as other parents. School dissatisfaction, however, appeared to be higher among parents of students with disabilities, especially parents of students with emotional problems. As anticipated, because the question on expectations was limited to academic alternatives, parents of students with disabilities showed considerably lower academic expectations overall, although there is quite a bit of variation depending on the type of disability.

The effects of these parental factors, as well as other relevant demographic factors, on fourth grade achievement in reading and math were examined using a model that also controls for previous educational achievement (as measured by third grade test scores). These analyses (see regression results in Appendix C) indicate that parental expectations for their children's education were a powerful predictor of achievement in both reading and math after controlling for race, gender, disability, and other family characteristics. For reading, the only other significant parental variable was frequency of school contacts, which was negatively related to reading achievement for the reasons explained above.

For math scores, several other variables were important. Parental involvement both at home and through school organizations had a positive and significant relationship with math achievement. In addition, higher school dissatisfaction had a negative relationship with lower math scores.

Although small sample sizes preclude doing these analyses exclusively for students with disabilities, the model does control for disability and, as noted previously, disability in general does not have a significant effect on growth in achievement (i.e., once previous achievement is considered).

Parental Involvement in the Special Education Process

As discussed in Chapter 2, the IDEA gives parents of students with disabilities important roles and responsibilities in the education of their children. Of particular note are the opportunities for parents to work with professionals to develop the IEP for their child.

Systematic research on the nature and quality of parent participation in the education of students with disabilities is very limited. As the point in the special education process at which parents and professionals have the greatest opportunity for collaboration and substantive input, the IEP conference has been the focus of much of the available research. Both research and parent reports (National Council on Disability, 1995) suggest that, for some parents, the IEP process has worked well: they are actively involved in key decisions regarding the education of their children, such as what goals the teacher should concentrate on and in what classroom setting the child should be educated. One mother's testimony

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

describes her satisfaction with the IEP process (National Council on Disability, 1995:56): ''A key to Michael's success has been the teamwork of all the educational professionals involved in Michael's program. The IEP process has allowed us to carefully plan and individually tailor Michael's educational goals and objectives."13

Evidence indicates that for some parents, however, the IEP process is a less positive experience. Some have found themselves in an adversarial relationship with schools when they do not agree with the recommendations made by the educators. Other parents have not participated at all in the IEP process and may not even be aware of the special role they are entitled to play. No systematic national data are available on participation rates of parents in IEP meetings or other factors, such as the number of parents who challenge IEP decisions. However, results of recent field hearings suggest that weak parent participation in decisions about appropriate education may be one of the most neglected problems in special education (National Council on Disability, 1995).

Barriers to Participation

Research has identified several barriers to effective parent participation in the IEP process. These include low parent attendance, time constraints, use of education jargon by school professionals, the undervaluing of parental input by school professionals, and a lack of parent skills and information.

Low attendance by parents at IEP meetings is reported to be a widespread problem (Goldstein et al., 1980; Leyser, 1985; Polifka, 1981; Scanlon et al., 1981). Some studies have suggested that parents are not well informed about the IEP (Christenson et al., 1992a); for example, one survey of 325 parents of students with disabilities found that 30–40 percent of the parents did not know what an IEP was (Leyser, 1985).

Studies have shown that the time allotted for meeting and developing IEPs is relatively brief for the amount of substantive work to be done. One qualitative research study (Silverstein et al., 1992) found that IEP meetings took one hour, but others (Vaughn et al., 1988; Ysseldyke et al., 1982b; Silverstein et al., 1992) found the time to be of much shorter duration. Parents did not necessarily desire longer formal meetings but instead wanted more time to process information, make decisions, and gain additional knowledge.

Evidence also suggests that the use of technical language and jargon, in both reports and conversations, is a barrier for parents at multidisciplinary team meetings (National Council on Disability, 1995; Mehan et al., 1986; Roit and Pfohl, 1984; Weddig, 1984; Ysseldyke et al., 1982b). Even without jargon, written and oral

13  

In the National Council on Disability Report of 1995, 400 witnesses, most of whom were parents or other family members of students with disabilities, testified in 10 field hearings across the United States on their experiences and recommendations for the IDEA.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

language can pose a barrier for parents of students with disabilities. Research has found that special education documents are written at a fifth to eight grade reading level, which may be too high for some disadvantaged or culturally different parents. Furthermore, if parents cannot understand critical documents, they may not actually be giving informed consent on important decisions (Lindle, 1992).

Yet another issue is the perception of some parents that school professionals are not responsive to their views during the IEP process. At the hearings held by the National Council on Disability (1995), many parents testified that they found the IEP process frustrating and intimidating, citing such problems as teachers who arrived at the meetings with completed IEPs or who did not respect their opinions on potential goals and objectives. Researchers have documented both superficial and low levels of parent involvement in the development of the IEP (Christenson et al., 1992a, Goldstein et al., 1980). As one mother testified, "I believe parents come to the IEP meeting as an unequal partner. Our signature means only that we were present at the meeting" (National Council on Disability, 1995:57).

Lack of good information about the sometimes complex IEP process appears to be one important reason why some parents of students with disabilities are not involved in educational decision making (Hoff et al., 1978; Goldstein et al., 1980; Leyser, 1985; Lindle, 1992). Research indicates that some parents lack familiarity with the IEP document and its contents (Leyser, 1985; McKinney and Horcutt, 1982). Even though some parents may not wish to participate in the decisions about their child's program, researchers have suggested that it is important that all parents be informed enough to choose the level of participation and to give meaningful consent (Turnbull and Turnbull, 1982, in press).

Special Needs of Minority and Poor Parents

Barriers to meaningful participation in educational decision making are often magnified for minority parents of students with disabilities, as well as for economically or educationally disadvantaged parents. Minority and poor parents may also encounter other obstacles stemming from cultural differences, language barriers, and lower educational attainment. These obstacles warrant attention, since African American and Native American children tend to be identified for special education at somewhat higher rates than other groups, and since parents of children with disabilities tend to be more socioeconomically disadvantaged than parents in general.

The research base on minority issues in special education is narrow and consists largely of qualitative research (e.g., Harry, 1992b, 1992c; Harry et al., 1995). The available studies stress two features as central to the participation of minority parents in special education: (1) the influence of culture and socioeconomic status on the interactions between parents and professionals and (2) ineffective communication.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

Research suggests that the typical modes and logistics of interactions between parents and schools may not be well attuned to differences in culture and economic circumstances. Education meetings in the United States are often characterized by efficiency, organization, and formality, which may contrast with the slower, more personalized approaches of other cultures (Harry, 1992a). Logistical matters, such as transportation, child care, and work schedules, often become a deterrent for parents who cannot make the necessary arrangements to attend education meetings (Harry, 1992a). These logistical barriers are not specific to minority parents; indeed, they can create problems for any single-parent, low-income, immigrant, or homeless family.

Research has also emphasized the importance of oral and written communication in minority parent participation. Parents for whom English is not the primary language may have difficulty comprehending plain English, let alone the educational jargon that is often part of such meetings (Harry, 1992a, 1992b; and Harry et al., 1995). There is also evidence that other cultures may have different views of specific terms such as "disability" or "handicapped," which may present problems for parents who are trying to understand the exact nature of their child's disability (Harry 1992a, 1992c).

Written communication is the primary means of providing information, recording decisions, and procuring parental permission in special education. Documents are usually written in English at a middle-grade reading level, are presented to parents without much discussion, and contain many unfamiliar words. Harry (1992a) has suggested that the presence of an interpreter and a special education family liaison worker may help to remove barriers for minority families who have differences in languages, experiences, and expectations.

PARTICIPATION IN STANDARDS-BASED REFORM: ISSUES AND CASE EXAMPLES

As the preceding sections have illustrated, the characteristics of students with disabilities are very heterogeneous, and their variety affects how they currently participate in general education. One can reasonably assume that this heterogeneity will also affect the nature and level of their participation in standards-based reform. A carefully considered approach to participation is consistent with the individualization of curricular goals, instructional objectives, teaching methodology, and assessment of progress that characterizes special education practice and the interpretation of legal mandates. For a number of students with disabilities, the general education goals and instructional objectives associated with standards-based reforms are likely to be compatible with their individualized educational programs. Clearly, these students should participate in the standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessments associated with the standards-based reforms.

For some other students with disabilities, participation in the common standards and the general education curriculum is likely to require some modification

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

or adaptations. For example, some students who need special education in only one academic area (e.g., mathematics) may be able to participate fully in all other standards but may require adaptations in mathematics standards and curricula. Other students may need to move through the curriculum at a slower pace, necessitating adaptations. Some students will need instruction in areas not covered by the common standards. A small proportion of students with severe disabilities may require a curriculum that is very different from the curriculum based on the common standards. Issues related to standards, curriculum, and instruction are discussed further in Chapter 4.

Some students with disabilities will be able to participate fully in the common standards but will require adaptations or accommodations to participate in common assessments. Because of the nature of their disabilities, some of these children simply cannot take the tests as designed, for example because they cannot hold a pencil or see the test booklet. These children require testing accommodations, such as braille or large print versions of the test, oral reading of directions, use of a typewriter or computer, or a method to point to correct answers. Other students, such as some with learning disabilities, sometimes need accommodations such as extended time, more breaks during testing sessions, or a separate setting in which to take the test. Chapter 5 focuses on issues in the assessment of students with disabilities participating in standards-based reforms.

For an individual student with a disability, the curricular emphasis in the IEP will be one of the most important considerations in determining whether the common content standards and assessment procedures will be suitable. Depending on the number of behavioral dimensions affected by the disability and the severity of those effects, students' IEPs may or may not include goals that are consistent with standards-based reform. In the section below we present three case examples to illustrate these principles.

Case I: Student with a Mild Disability

Mary is a tenth grade student with an attention deficit disorder and a learning disability in the areas of reading recognition and reading comprehension.14 She currently reads at the fourth grade level in one-to-one assessment trials with her resource room teacher. Her reading skills continue to improve with individualized, one-to-one instruction, but the pace of improvement is slow. The time she must devote to reading instruction in her daily schedule means there are other academic courses she cannot take.

In other academic areas, Mary performs at a below-average but passing level. Her mathematics skills, depending on how they are assessed, are near average for students her age. Her performance on measures of general intellectual functioning has varied within a narrow range, indicating low average overall abilities.

14  

Although her name has been changed, the description of Mary is based on a real child.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

Overall, her motor abilities and adaptive behavior are normal; however, she has some difficulties with social skills and emotional adjustment. She does not react constructively to pressure to perform well or on timed academic exercises. She typically does very poorly on any kind of group-administered standardized test. She does considerably better on standardized tests if they are administered on a one-to-one basis or in a small group and on tests that do not require her to read complex narratives as part of solving problems. Mary's special education team and parents prefer that she be excused from group-administered standardized tests or that such tests be given to her in a small group setting with extended time limits.

Although the details vary from case to case, there are a relatively large number of students with cognitive disabilities like those described for Mary. Generally, these students do not have impairments on the dimensions of sensory acuity, motor skills, or health status. General intellectual functioning, speech/communication, and academic achievement typically are below average, but above the level that would lead to a diagnosis of mental retardation. Adaptive behavior in the sense of caring for one's self is normal or close to normal, but social skills generally are slightly below average, as is overall emotional adjustment.

Increasingly, over the last two decades, many students with these characteristics have been diagnosed as having specific learning disabilities in school settings, although there are many more students with some of these characteristics who are not referred and therefore never considered for special education eligibility. Indeed, depending on the state and, within states the school district, students like Mary may or may not be diagnosed as having a disability and qualify for special education.

The most difficult questions about participation in standards-based reform occur with students like Mary: students with real and significant educational problems that may or may not lead to a formal designation as having a disability. These students often devote some part of their school day to specially designed instruction to help remediate areas of academic difficulty; this makes it hard for them to participate fully in the rest of the curriculum and creates competing priorities for how they should spent their time in school.

Designation as having a disability triggers certain protections and rights under the IDEA and Section 504. Do these protections and rights include alternatives to the common curriculum, especially in areas of academic difficulty? Should they? Or is it more important that people with mild disabilities be included in the common curriculum, to ensure that the education system serves these students well and that they have access to curricula that meet high standards? If the answers to these questions are affirmative, then there is the further dilemma over assessment procedures: Should accommodations be available to students who read poorly, have difficulty meeting time limits, or are inattentive in larger groups? Accommodations almost inevitably change the assessment task in significant and often unknown ways, as we discuss further in Chapter 5.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

Case II: Student with Multiple Disabilities of Varying Severity

Jerry (also a real child with the name changed) was diagnosed at the age of 6 months at a university clinic as having cerebral palsy that affected all four limbs as well as speech production. Preschool services for children with disabilities were provided beginning at age 1 and continuing until Jerry entered kindergarten in a general education setting. Although assessments of intelligence and achievement are difficult due to Jerry's disabilities related to movement and speech production, it appears that he has at least average cognitive ability. Jerry's IEP specifies that he receive the services of a one-to-one instructional assistant in the classroom to aid him with communication and mobility activities. Jerry also receives the related services of physical, occupational, and speech/language therapy. He participates in all academic activities in his first grade classroom and is acquiring academic skills in core areas such as reading and math at an average to above-average level. He is pursuing the goals in the general education curriculum adopted by his school district for children his age.

From what is known about Jerry, the common curriculum appears suitable for his abilities, and he is likely to make good progress in acquiring academic skills. Assessment of his skills and abilities is difficult; for example, he cannot write his answers because of his severe motor skills impairments. Testing accommodations are likely to require more time as well as help from his instructional assistant. Few would argue about whether he should receive such accommodations in assessment, but the meaning of his accommodated performance in relation to the performance of other students is uncertain. Furthermore, the way in which his performance should be included in high-stakes comparisons involving his classroom, school attendance center, or school district is even more uncertain. But Jerry clearly should have access to the general education curriculum, and assessment of progress in that curriculum is part and parcel of that access. Many would argue that, unless he is included in such assessments, general education will not be held accountable for his progress. Resolution of the problems associated with Jerry's participation in the standards-based assessments will not be easy or straightforward. But resolution is necessary, and different options will have varying effects on him and his school.

Students like Jerry with normal cognitive ability and severe motor or sensory impairments are extremely rare—well under 1 percent of the overall student population. No matter what is done for Jerry and students like him, there will be little effect on the high-stakes comparisons of performance at the building, district, or state levels; the much larger group of students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities, who make up 5–8 percent of the overall student population, have the potential to affect these high-stakes comparisons.

Case III: Student with Multiple Severe Disabilities

In any school district of more than a few hundred students, there are likely

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

to be children with multiple severe disabilities who perform far below their age peers on several important dimensions of behavior. The number of disabilities, the severe discrepancies from developmental norms, and the complexity of their special education needs are likely to render at least some of them unable to participate in any meaningful way in the activities associated with standards-based reform. Consider the case of Tom, a child who has multiple and very severe disabilities, including extremely limited mobility, deafness, and profound mental retardation. He is not able to learn even rudimentary skills associated with the standard curriculum, e.g., basic letter-sound relationships, recognition of words by sight, knowledge of basic temporal relationships. He is nevertheless entitled by law to special education and related services. Tom's IEP might address such fundamental learning activities such as basic self-care and communication skills. Tom is part of the public school population to whom standards-based reforms are applied and is ostensibly included in the legislative language that declares "All children can learn and achieve to high standards." Extremely rare cases like this present a challenge to the inclusive language of "all" in standards-based reforms.

Issues

As noted throughout this chapter, there are enormous variations in the population of students classified as having disabilities. A very small number of students—those with the most severe disabilities, such as Tom—will not be able to participate fully in all aspects of the general education curriculum, the common academic standards embedded in that curriculum, or the common assessment procedures. For some, full participation in the general education curriculum and common academic standards will be feasible, but some modification such as assessment accommodations will be required to overcome obvious impediments due to sensory or motor impairments (such as the case of Jerry). Many students with mild disabilities can be expected to participate in the common curriculum for most, if not all, parts of their educational programs. For many students with disabilities, however, the extent of participation in the common standards-based curriculum and assessments is likely to depend on the interpretation of legal rights and assumptions about the risks and benefits of participation (such as the case of Mary) as well as the nature of the standards. These students may—and we emphasize may because the legal requirements are not clear—have legal rights to assessment accommodations and, arguably, entitlement to the curriculum specified in their IEPs rather than the curriculum specified in standards-based reforms.

Two particularly complex issues regarding the participation of all students with disabilities in standards-based reforms are considered further in Chapters 4 and 5: the extent of participation in the general education curriculum and the need for accommodations in standards-based assessment activities.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

CONCLUSIONS

Several themes emerge from this discussion of student identification, disability characteristics, and educational needs.

The number of students with disabilities is sizable, and they are extremely heterogeneous. More than 5 million school-age students—or about 10 percent of the school-age population—qualify for special education services, constituting a significant population. Students served by special education vary widely in severity of disability, educational goals, and participation in the general education curriculum. These variations affect many aspects of their schooling. In addition, there is evidence that students with disabilities as a group are at socioeconomic disadvantage compared with their peers without disabilities.

Currently the criteria for identifying many of the categories of disability are not well defined or reliable, even though these criteria affect important decisions about which students are eligible for legal rights and special education services under the IDEA. Disability categories are defined largely by state policies; identification rates vary a great deal from state to state, and very different criteria are used in different places. Interpretation and implementation of the disability criteria is largely a district-level concern; no systematic data are available about how the criteria may be interpreted and therefore which students get into which categories and on what basis. Currently, to qualify for special education, a yes-no determination of the presence of a disability has to be made, although disability varies along a number of dimensions, each of which is best described as a continuum of severity. Clear-cut decisions about which children should be served are not easily made. Some children who qualify for special education in one school would not qualify elsewhere. Conversely, some children are not identified as disabled who are likely to have the same educational needs as those who are identified. The implications of standards-based reforms for these children—low-achieving but not currently identified for special education—is beyond the scope of this committee's work but nevertheless should be considered in implementing and monitoring the effects of standards-based reforms.

Meaningful discussion of standards, curriculum, assessment, and outcomes cannot occur without thoughtful consideration of the varied characteristics of the large and diverse number of students with disabilities. The nature of the participation of students with disabilities in the common aspects of standards-based reform is likely to vary depending on their individual characteristics and educational needs. Over the past 20 years, students with disabilities have been participating more and more in general education classrooms and curricula. For some students with disabilities, participation in the general education curricula and therefore in standards-based reforms is already a reality and will require minor or no individualized adaptations. The small group of children with very severe cognitive disabilities will present particular challenges for standards-based reforms and are likely to require major adaptations to standards-based curricula and as-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

sessments. For another group—largely those with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities—participation in common standards and assessments can be expected to increase considerably as the frameworks are put into place. These children may require some modifications to the common standards, curricula, or assessments to ensure compatibility of their individualized education programs with the standards frameworks.

The number of students with disabilities who may need accommodations or other modifications in standards and assessments is unknown and will depend on such factors as behavioral characteristics and severity of disability, extent of participation in the general curriculum, and the instructional needs of students. Nationally representative data are lacking about the population of students with disabilities on any of these factors. The need for accommodations and other modifications will also depend on the nature of a district's or state's particular content standards, performance standards, and assessments—which vary significantly from place to place.

The role of parents will be key in ensuring the successful participation of students with disabilities in standards-based reforms. Parental involvement and expectations are strongly related to the achievement of their children, even after taking into account the effects of related variables, such as parental education and socioeconomic status; these relationships appear to hold for students with and without disabilities. In addition, parents of students with disabilities have a unique role to play in the process of designing their children's educational programs. Although the IEP process is the cornerstone of parental involvement, evidence indicates that it has not worked well for all parents. Concerns regarding the IEP process are exacerbated for minority or economically disadvantaged parents. Resolving the barriers to parental involvement takes on even greater importance in the era of standards-based reform, particularly in light of the research evidence indicating its effects on improving achievement. The legal provisions guaranteeing the rights and responsibilities of parents in special education are potentially powerful tools that parents can use to bring about the successful integration of children with disabilities into a standards-based educational environment. At the same time, standards-based reform may place even greater demands on parents, in terms of decision-making responsibilities, participation requirements, and training and information needs.

Very few systematic, nationally representative data are available about students with disabilities. As a result, we know very little about the population served by special education—how many children move in and out of special education, how definitions of disability categories are interpreted by individual school staff, how many children are referred but not found eligible, how many have a disability but do not need special education, what the demographic characteristics of eligible children are, how many students complete full requirements for a diploma, how many leave school on some other basis, and so on. Counting and keeping track of data related to the disability status, outcomes, and perfor-

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
×

mance of students with disabilities are complicated by a number of factors specific to this population—for example, many cannot take group-administered tests (usually the primary outcome measure) under standardized procedures, many split their time between general education classrooms and special education classrooms, some are served in separate schools not sampled in most data collection procedures, some do not remain with their age or grade cohort as they progress through school, and many move in and out of the special education system over time.

The exclusion of students with disabilities from these research and evaluation samples can affect the overall results of these studies. The results of any aggregated data pertaining to general education, and thus to standards-based reform, can be affected if these children are left out, especially since many students with disabilities have lower achievement. Furthermore, systematic, representative data are needed about the educational progress of students with disabilities relative to the larger group of general education students.

Without good data on such factors as special education referral and identification rates or graduation rates and types of diplomas, it will be hard to monitor some of the potential effects of standards-based reforms—both intended and unintended—for students with disabilities . Past experience has indicated that new policies often have systemwide effects that were not originally intended, such as increased dropout or retention rates. In addition, specific subgroups of children, such as those defined by gender or race/ethnicity, can be differentially affected. It will be very important to detect whether, for example, standards-based reforms are increasing the rates of referral to special education, changing the demographics of who gets identified, or affecting the dropout rates or types of diplomas obtained. Changes such as these have the potential to affect all students, not just those with disabilities.

Suggested Citation:"3 THE DIVERSITY OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES." National Research Council. 1997. Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/5788.
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In the movement toward standards-based education, an important question stands out: How will this reform affect the 10% of school-aged children who have disabilities and thus qualify for special education?

In Educating One and All, an expert committee addresses how to reconcile common learning for all students with individualized education for "one"--the unique student. The book makes recommendations to states and communities that have adopted standards-based reform and that seek policies and practices to make reform consistent with the requirements of special education.

The committee explores the ideas, implementation issues, and legislative initiatives behind the tradition of special education for people with disabilities. It investigates the policy and practice implications of the current reform movement toward high educational standards for all students.

Educating One and All examines the curricula and expected outcomes of standards-based education and the educational experience of students with disabilities--and identifies points of alignment between the two areas. The volume documents the diverse population of students with disabilities and their school experiences. Because approaches to assessment and accountability are key to standards-based reforms, the committee analyzes how assessment systems currently address students with disabilities, including testing accommodations. The book addresses legal and resource implications, as well as parental participation in children's education.

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