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Special Education

A Special Case

March 01, 2004 3 min read

“A Special Case”

Stories in this series include ...

Not Separate, but Equal:
James Russell Lowell Elementary has shut down all of its special ed classrooms.

Tandem Teaching:
A cooperative approach at Clark Middle School asks special ed teachers to master new subjects.

Supplemental Success:
With a study-skills class, Cabrillo High School helps students with disabilities learn how to learn.

The notion that all children can—and should—meet challenging achievement standards has become the mantra of standards-based reform. Both in the individual school microcosm and in the larger academic universe, those standards boil down to numbers. And the numbers are telling.

Consider Byng Elementary School in Oklahoma, where 17 of the school’s 38 5th graders receive special education services. After 14 of those children scored below the “proficient” reading level on the state’s reading test during the 2002-03 school year, Byng missed its achievement target and failed to make “adequate yearly progress” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

It’s a precursor of what’s to come: Within the next decade, federal law will require that all students—including the roughly 6 million now categorized as having some sort of disability—perform at the proficient level on state exams. The effects could be as striking as the laws that mandated full access to public schools in the mid-1970s; nearly 96 percent of students with disabilities are now served in regular school buildings. Today, thanks in part to the standards drive, more and more of those students—and their teachers—are joining their counterparts in mainstream classrooms.

Proponents argue that testing requirements will prompt schools to focus less on following legal procedures involving students with disabilities and more on their academic performance. Yet critics wonder whether those students will ever be able to meet the same stringent academic standards as their peers.

For its annual Quality Counts report, Teacher Magazine‘s sister publication, Education Week, commissioned a nationwide survey of 800 special and general education teachers and found that the majority share these concerns. While almost 60 percent “somewhat” or “strongly” disagree that their students with individualized education plans are unable to learn the material they’re supposed to, more than eight in 10 believe that special ed students should be expected to meet a separate set of academic standards. (See the accompanying stories for additional survey results, and visit www.edweek.org/sreports/qc04/ for state-by-state analyses as well as stories examining key trends and programs).

So far, the statistics about the performance of special ed students on such tests, widely available for the first time, seem to reflect teachers’ concerns. Of the 39 states reporting complete data to Education Week in the wake of NCLB, 30 reported achievement gaps of 30 percent or more between special and general education students scoring at or above the “proficient” level in 4th grade reading tests. At the high school level, 32 of 36 states reported similar disparities.

Along with such disparities, new federal requirements that special ed teachers be “highly qualified” in every subject they teach have encouraged more of these teachers, particularly at the secondary level, to present academic content in collaborative or team-teaching settings with their general education colleagues. Even at younger grade levels, resource rooms and self-contained classrooms are gradually disappearing. More than three in four of all public school teachers now teach some special ed students. In the stories that follow, we look at three different approaches at three grade levels.

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