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Learning-Disabled Students Found To Fare Poorly

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The latest report from a federal longitudinal study of special-education students reaches some disturbing conclusions about how well the nation's learning-disabled students are faring in regular high-school classrooms.

Contrary to expectations, the report indicates, the vast majority of high-school students with learning disabilities are spending time in mainstream classrooms. But nearly one-third of those students are failing there, the study says, and schools are providing little or no extra support to them or their teachers.

"We have to recognize when we assign these kids to regular classrooms that that's a tough environment," Mary Wagner, who directed the study for the California-based research firm sri International, said last week. "A lot of kids fail, and having failed is a prime predictor for dropping out."

The findings are expected to add fuel to a bitter debate within the special-education field over the so-called "regular-education initiative," which calls for educating mildly handicapped students in regular classrooms, rather than giving them stigmatizing labels and pulling them out for help in separate classes.

Critics of the initiative are concerned that such efforts will take away the hard-won rights of handicapped students and dilute the services available to them.

"Everyone is taking ideological stands in that debate," observed Ms. Wagner, "when the truth is we haven't had a lot of empirical data on what it means to be in the regular classroom."

The new study is one of a series of reports emerging from the National Longitudinal Transition Study on Special Education Programs, a five-year, $5-million study mandated by the Congress in 1983. It tracks the progress of a nationally representative sample of 8,000 handicapped youths between the ages of 13 and 23 who were enrolled in special-education programs during the 1985-86 school year. (See Education Week, May 3, 1989.)

This most recent report, first presented during a meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Boston this spring, focuses exclusively on learning-disabled students. Such students account for half of all special-education students in secondary schools.

While all the nation's 1.1 million learning-disabled students may share a common label under federal special-education law, the researchers said, their abilities vary widely. Learning disabilities encompass impairments in listening, thinking, speaking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing mathematical calculations. And students' difficulties in those areas may range from mild to severe.

The researchers found, for example, that 38 percent of the learning-disabled students had some trouble looking up telephone numbers and using the telephone. More than one-fifth could not easily tell time on a clock with hands, and 16 percent had trouble reading signs.

Despite the number of students experiencing difficulties with such basic tasks, most secondary-school learning-disabled students were found to be spending most of their time in regular classrooms.

Examinations of the students' school records showed that, on average, they spent 64 percent of their time in mainstreamed classes, which included academic courses as well as vocational-education, art, music, and physical-education classes. Eighteen percent of the students were mainstreamed the entire school day.

In regular classes, the researchers said, many of the students were being left on their own to founder academically.

The majority of the mainstreamed students, they noted, were held to the same grading standards as their non-handicapped peers. Yet the handicapped students, they said, "generally are not provided direct services, such as tutoring assistance, in order to meet academic expectations, beyond what is available through their special-education courses.''

In fact, 51 percent of the mainstreamed students in the study sample received no additional special help whatsoever, and fewer than 18 percent were being tutored.

Moreover, the regular-classroom teachers supervising such students were also getting little support. While most of them had consulted with the students' special-education teachers, only 51 percent had received special materials for the handicapped students. And fewer than half had been given inservice training on learning disabilities.

Possibly as a result of that lack of support, 33 percent of the learning-disabled students who were mainstreamed had failed one or more of their classes in the previous year, according to the study. In contrast, only 12 percent of the learning-disabled students in special classes had failed a class.

And, according to the study, the grade-point average for the learning-disabled students was 1.94. Grade-point averages among nonhandicapped youths, in comparison, range from 2.6 to 2.85, according to other studies.

More disturbingly, the researchers pointed out, "students classified as learning-disabled were more likely to do poorly in terms of grade failure the more time they spent in regular-education classes."

Failing a course, the researchers said, was the single most powerful predictor of a student's dropping out. The probability of dropping out for those who had received a failing grade was 16 percent--about three times higher than for those who had not failed, according to the study.

Over all, about 32 percent of all the learning-disabled students surveyed dropped out of school between 1985 and 1987, according to the report. The graduation rate among the study sample was 61 percent--more than 10 percentage points lower than nationally reported graduation rates for nonhandicapped youth.

However, on a more positive note, the researchers said their findings point to concrete ways educators can improve a learning-disabled student's chances for success.

To illustrate their point, they sketched a profile of a typical learning-disabled student in the study--an urban male from a low-income, minority, single-parent household who is older than his classmates because he has been held back one or more grades.

That student stands a 52 percent chance of dropping out if he has six mainstreamed classes, receives no tutoring assistance, and attends a school where there is little additional support for him or his teacher. But with a little extra support, some tutoring, and only five mainstream classes, the researchers calculated, the student's chances of dropping out can be reduced to 32 percent.

"So much of the research on dropouts concentrates on the characteristics of the kids," Ms. Wagner said. "There's a feeling that these kids come from broken homes, they're poor, they have so many social problems, there's nothing educators can do."

"But, in fact, that's not the full story," she said. "It does help to help."

Copies of the report, "The School Programs and School Performance of Secondary Students Classified as Learning Disabled: Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study of Special Education Students," are available for $5 each by writing sri, 333 Ravenswood Ave., Menlo Park, Calif. 94025-3493.

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