Wide Variation Seen in Special-Education Compliance
WASHINGTON--Seventeen years after passage of a landmark law guaranteeing educational services for disabled children, efforts to comply with its provisions are at best "variable,'' a federal report released last week contends.
The study by the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, is intended to provide a progress report on education for the nation's 4.6 million disabled students.
While there have been some improvements in special education over the years, the report suggests, states and the federal government are still having problems complying with provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The study indicates, for example, that states continue to show wide variations in their compliance with federal mandates that students be taught in regular classrooms when appropriate, or that they have written educational programs.
In addition, the report adds its voice to a growing chorus in the special-education field calling for inclusion of disabled students in national education-reform efforts and in national data bases on student achievement.
"Students with disabilities have been largely forgotten by the mainstream of our education system and by reformers of that system,'' the report concludes. "America must fulfill the potential of all of its citizens, including all students with disabilities, if it hopes to maintain world-class economic status in the next century.''
The report, "Serving the Nation's Students With Disabilities: Progress and Prospects,'' was among three reports on disability issues released by the council last week. It follows a 1989 study by the council on the condition of special-education programs nationally.
Compliance Failures Cited
The new report's findings on the degree to which states are complying with special-education laws are among its most pointed.
The report notes that, of the 165 local education agencies monitored by the Education Department's office of special-education programs between April 1989 and February 1992, 143 were cited for not complying with provisions requiring that disabled students, whenever appropriate, be taught in the "least restrictive environment''--a setting usually taken to mean regular schools or classrooms.
Investigators found that school districts frequently place students first and then develop their written education plans, or automatically put students given particular disability labels, such as mentally retarded or emotionally disturbed, in separate classes or schools.
Possibly as a result of such practices, the report indicates, states vary widely in the degree to which disabled students are taught in regular classrooms.
The study provides evidence that the movement of students to less restrictive settings has been limited over the years. While the percentage of disabled pupils in regular classrooms increased from 27 percent in 1985 to more than 31 percent in 1989, separate-classroom placements also increased over the same period, growing from 23.8 percent to 24.4 percent.
Placements in resource rooms, in which students are pulled out of classes for special tutoring, decreased during that period from 42.5 percent to 37.3 percent.
Citing a previous study of 21 states, the report also notes that 9 percent of students with disabilities either do not have an individualized education program or have not been properly evaluated. Under federal law, written programs must be developed for all special-education students.
Even at the federal level, the study maintains, some of the law's provisions are not being fully exercised. For example, the law permits parents of disabled students to appeal decisions in special-education disputes to the assistant secretary of education for special education and rehabilitative services. Of the 175 requests for secretarial review made since 1981, however, only two were granted.
Lack of Data Seen
The report also is critical of federal efforts to collect data on speial-education students.
It notes, for example, that discrepancies exist between the annual federal report on special education and state data. Moreover, the federal report often does not include data on the academic achievement of those students.
The study also documents the extent to which disabled pupils are excluded from other national data bases that measure student achievement, such as the National Assessment for Educational Progress.
Even when they are included, the study says, disabled pupils' scores are never reported separately so they can be used to gauge how well those students are faring in school.
"The data just really isn't there,'' said Mary Raether, a member of the national council, "and we think that explains to some degree why national education-reform efforts omit these students.''
The council examined six such reports and efforts, ranging from the Labor Department's Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills to the national education goals.
Only two of the six initiatives mention disabled students.
"Americans are left wondering,'' the report states, "if this means the nation has no expectations for competency of its students who receive special-education services.''
Free copies of the 99-page report are available from the National
Council on Disability, 800 Independence Ave., S.W., Suite 814,
Washington, D.C. 20591.