Special Report
Special Education

Enveloping Expectations

Federal law demands that schools teach the same content to children they wrote off a quarter-century ago.
By Lynn Olson — January 08, 2004 28 min read
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The numbers are inescapable. Of the 38 pupils in 5th grade in Byng Elementary School, 17 receive special education services. Fourteen of those children didn’t score at the “proficient” level on the state’s reading test in 2002-03. As a result, the Ada, Okla., school missed its achievement target and failed to make “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, under the No Child Left Behind Act this school year.

“It’s a flaw in the law to assume that children who are identified as having special needs academically can perform satisfactorily on an age-appropriate test,” contends Steven P. Crawford, the superintendent of the 1,700-student Byng district. “It’s the same principle as asking kids to jump a bar one foot off the ground and providing no exceptions for children who are in a wheelchair.”

Remarks like Crawford’s are echoing across the nation, as the federal law forces many schools to confront publicly the performance of students with disabilities for the first time.

The 2001 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act rests on the belief that all children can reach challenging achievement standards. Nowhere is that challenge more evident than in the push to raise expectations for the nation’s nearly 6.6 million students in special education and hold schools accountable for their performance. Until now, those children have been largely excluded from state testing and accountability systems.

Federal civil rights laws have barred discrimination against students with disabilities since the mid-1970s. But before 1975, when Congress guaranteed such students a “free appropriate public education,” some 1 million were excluded from public education entirely and hundreds of thousands more were denied appropriate services.

Today, nearly 96 percent of students with disabilities are served in regular school buildings. The debate largely has shifted from providing access to the classroom to providing access to the same general education curriculum and standards.

That shift was heralded in 1997. The reauthorization that year of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as the IDEA, requires states and districts to establish goals for special education students consistent, to the maximum extent appropriate, with the goals and standards set for other children; to include students with disabilities in state and district testing programs; and to report those results.

But the 1997 law has few consequences for noncompliance, and the performance of students with disabilities remained chiefly the concern of parents and special educators.

The No Child Left Behind Act has changed all that. The law holds states, districts, and schools accountable for ensuring that the same minimum percentage of special education students performs at the proficient level on state tests as other youngsters. The 12-year goal is to hoist virtually all students over that bar by 2013-14. States also must test at least 95 percent of students with disabilities.

“Along comes AYP, and all of a sudden, principals and superintendents are starting to sit up and take notice,” says Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland College Park. “I think the thing that No Child Left Behind has done, which is good, is it’s not just a special education issue anymore.”

As a result, educators both inside and outside special education for the first time must confront what it really means for all students to learn to high standards, including those with the most unusual educational needs.

The new accountability model represents a gut-wrenching shift away from a special education system that’s been rooted in complying with legal procedures and in meeting highly individualized goals for children, rather than aggregate results. Now, many people are asking how much progress special education students can be expected to make, how fast.

As the title of this year’s Quality Counts report, Count Me In: Special Education in an Era of Standards, suggests, students with disabilities have the same right to be included in state standards, assessments, and accountability systems as all other children. Otherwise, it’s impossible to know how they’re performing or how well public schools are serving their needs.

Although enormous strides have been made in special education over the past three decades, enormous gaps remain: in the performance of special education students compared with their peers’, in understanding how best to assess what students with disabilities know and can do, and in the preparation of special and general education teachers to provide such students with full access to the general education curriculum.

Indeed, while the idea of including students with disabilities in standards-based education has finally become real, it’s not always clear how to do so in ways that are accurate and appropriate. For many educators, then, this new reality is both exhilarating and daunting.

“This is fantastic,” says Judy Elliott, the assistant superintendent for special education in the Long Beach Unified School District in California. “For the first time, we don’t have to fight to be at the table. This is for all kids, including kids with disabilities. How long have we been struggling for that?

“And now,” she says, “it’s like, be careful what you asked for.”

A Diverse Group

As a 1997 report by the National Research Council, “Educating One & All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform,” noted, it’s hard to talk about asking students in special education to meet the same standards and outcomes as everyone else without paying attention to their varied characteristics.

Quality Counts 2004 has tried to capture that diversity through the personal stories of children scattered throughout this report. The picture is complicated because states use different criteria to determine who qualifies for special education and different names for disability categories. Those labels can mask a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of individuals, based in part on the severity of their disabilities.

This report focuses specifically on youngsters who receive special education services. The sheer scope of that task prevented Education Week from looking at students with disabilities who qualify for Section 504 plans under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, but who do not receive special education services.

Of the nearly 6 million students ages 6 to 21 receiving special education under Part B of the IDEA, the nation’s primary law pertaining to special education, the vast majority--67 percent--have a specific learning disability or a speech or language impairment. Of those with specific learning disabilities, about 80 percent struggle with reading, according to federal statistics. (See story, Page 39.)

Fewer than 12 percent of students in special education have disabilities, such as mental retardation, associated with significant cognitive impairments.

Minority representation in special education categories varies aero s states. The under- or overrepresentation of some group in categories that are the most subjective to identify--mild mental retardation, specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbance--has led critics to question whether students are being misidentified for special education simply because they did not receive effective instruction in the first place. (See story, Page 22.)

One-fifth of special education students spend the majority of their time--in excess of 60 percent--outside regular classrooms, although that varies by disability. As is true of almost everything else about these youngsters, however, students in all disability categories can be found across the full range of placements: from separate public facilities, to resource rooms within regular schools, to private residential placements. Elementary pupils are more likely to be served in regular classrooms than are secondary school students.

Though students with disabilities, as a group, tend to perform far lower on state tests than their nondisabled peers do, individual students with disabilities can be found across the full range of academic performance.

As part of a federal research project, the Special Education Elementary Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative sample of pupils with disabilities ages 6 to 12 took a range of achievement tests. “You can find kids with disabilities who are scoring right near the top-above the 80th percentile-and you’ll find some in the middle,” says José Blackorby, a co-director of the SEELS project, “and then a lot more kids in the lowest quartile. So it’s heavily weighted toward the low end, but there’s quite a bit of diversity.”

In general, he says, students with speech or visual impairments have the highest performance. Those who spend more time in general education classrooms also have higher scores than those of their peers who spend less time in such settings. And students with fewer disabilities tend to have higher scores than those with a greater number of impairments.

“We have a range of students who have disabilities, so I would adamantly reject, as a blanket statement, that students with disabilities can’t meet the same achievement targets,” says Martha L. Thurlow, the director of the National Center on Educational Outcomes, located at the University of Minnesota. “I would say that’s not the case for the broad majority of students with disabilities.”

But graduation rates for students with disabilities remain alarmingly low. In 2001-02, only 32 percent of such students age 14 or older earned standard high school diplomas, according to the federal office of special education. The rates ranged from 14 percent in Alabama to 56 percent in Arkansas.

Students with disabilities also drop out of high school at approximately twice the rate of other students. That same year, Alaska, Louisiana, and Michigan all posted dropout rates for special education students higher than 25 percent.

Large Performance Gaps

For Quality Counts, Education Week asked states what percentage of special education students scored at the proficient level or above on state tests in mathematics and reading in 2002-03 compared with general education students. One of the most striking effects of the No Child Left Behind law so far is that those numbers are now publicly available for the majority of states.

Education Week encourages readers to look at the numbers, on Page 86, by examining the performance gaps within each state, not by comparing the proficiency rates across states. That’s because states use different tests and define what they mean by “proficient” differently. Some states also exclude the scores of certain students with disabilities from their calculations.

By the end of October 2003, nine states and the District of Columbia could not provide any data. Five more states could not provide results for the 2002-03 school year, but provided disaggregated data for earlier years.

Initial results from a few states are promising.

In Kansas, which tests virtually all its special education students, nearly half of 5th graders with disabilities scored at the proficient level or higher on state reading tests in 2003, compared with only 26 percent in 2000. In math, 58 percent of 4th graders with disabilities scored at the proficient level or better last year, compared with 36 percent four years earlier. Other grades have seen substantial, but smaller, increases.

“For too long, we held these students to lower standards,” says Alexa Pochokowski, the assistant commissioner for learning services in the Kansas education department. “I hate to say it: I think we almost felt sorry for them.”

Despite such progress, large gaps remain between the performance of special education students and the general student population, with special education students as a group performing well below general education students in every state.

For example, 30 of the 39 states that provided complete data had an achievement gap between special education and general education students on 4th grade reading tests of 30 percentage points or more. In Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Vermont, the gap was more than 50 percentage points. Gaps in 8th grade reading tended to be even worse. Only five of the 39 states--Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Texas--reported achievement gaps of less than 30 percentage points. Thirty-two of 36 states showed gaps larger than 30 percentage points on their 10th grade reading exams. (Where states do not test in grades 4, 8, and 10, Education Week used data from the next closest grade.)

Given such statistics, it’s no surprise that the No Child Left Behind Act has spawned dissension and unease in the education community. As Mitchell D. Chester, the assistant superintendent for policy development in the Ohio education department, observes, accountability for students with disabilities has become a “major lightning rod” in the implementation of the federal law.

Some observers argue there’s an essential conflict between the IDEA, which focuses on individual goals and learning plans for students, and the No Child Left Behind law, which stresses systems accountability and uniformity.

“The individualized nature of IDEA is totally inconsistent with the group nature of NCLB, even though they talk about classes of kids who are disabled,” says Miriam K. Freedman, a lawyer in Boston who works with school districts. “To me, that’s a collision course, to hold a school responsible for Billy not reading at grade level, when Billy has a disability whose need is individually met at a prekindergarten level.

“It’s holding a school accountable for something they can’t do, if they are consistent with another federal statute.”

For Quality Counts, Education Week commissioned a national survey of 800 special and general education teachers, conducted by the Washington-based firm of Belden Russonello & Stewart. The poll found that while most teachers agree in principle that students with disabilities should be taught to higher standards, many reject the notion that students in special education should be held to the same standards and testing requirements as other youngsters their age. (See story, Page 20.)

More than eight in 10 teachers believe that most special education students should be expected to meet a separate set of academic standards. Nearly as many think special education students should be given alternative assessment measures, rather than being required to take the same tests as general education students.

While teachers are positive about how much their special education students achieve each year, they also express reservations about whether all children with disabilities can actually meet state standards. Just 19 percent of teachers say all or most of their special education students would be able to score at the proficient level on state tests for students their age.

Half of teachers say only a few or none of their special education students would be able to do so, even with reasonable accommodations.

Testing, Testing

The most contentious issue, because of the federal law, is how to test students with disabilities appropriately, report the results, and include those scores in rating schools. (See story, Page 44.) States have made enormous strides in those areas since the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA. Even so, testing is a rapidly moving target.

Quality Counts found that in 2002-03, 19 states and the District of Columbia could not calculate the percent of special vs. general education students who took state tests by grade level. Thirteen of the 37 states that provided data on participation rates tested 95 percent or more of their students with disabilities in reading and math in grades 4, 8, and 10 during the 2002-03 school year. (Where states did not test in grades 4, 8, or 10, Education Week used data from the next closest grade.) Overall, participation rates for students with disabilities ranged from 40 percent to 100 percent.

This is for all kids, including kids with disabilities. How long have we been struggling for that?

By far the most common strategy for increasing the participation of students with disabilities is to provide accommodations, such as more time or one-on-one testing. Federal law requires states and districts to include students with disabilities in their testing programs with “appropriate accommodations,” where necessary. Students generally receive the same accommodations they get during regular classroom instruction, as spelled out in their individualized education plans, or IEPs.

But while all states have guidelines to help determine which accommodations are appropriate, the list of those permitted and prohibited varies widely by state, in part because of a limited research base to help in making those decisions.

Fifteen states bar special education students from taking tests with “nonstandard” accommodations or “modifications” that they believe alter the nature of what’s being tested, such as reading portions of a reading test out loud to a student. Ten states exclude from their state accountability systems the scores of special education students who take state tests with modifications. And 18 states automatically give students who take state tests with modifications a score of zero or nonproficient, according to Quality Counts’ survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

For students who can’t take state tests even with accommodations, federal law requires states and districts to offer “alternate” assessments, which might range from a portfolio of student work to a teacher’s observational checklist. Although the IDEA required all states to provide alternate assessments by July 2000, many did not. By 2003-04, every state and the District provided at least one alternate assessment or permitted districts to develop such tests.

As with accommodations, however, states differ in who’s eligible to take alternate assessments, the extent to which such tests reflect grade-level content and achievement standards, and how they treat those results in rating schools. Quality Counts found that 23 states included the scores of students who took alternate assessments when calculating proficiency rates on state tests for the purposes of this report.

Although federal law has required states and districts to report test results for students with disabilities vs. students without disabilities since 1994, states have been slow to do so. Last year, Quality Counts found that of the 47 states and the District of Columbia with school report cards, fewer than half published test results for students with disabilities. And even fewer compared the performance of those students with that of their nondisabled peers. This school year, 35 states and the District of Columbia require school or district report cards to include information separately on the test-participation rates and performance of students with disabilities. Twelve states require report cards to include the performance of students who took alternate assessments. Few states--seven and 15, respectively--require schools or districts to report dropout and graduation rates separately for students in special education.

States have been moving to include the performance of special education students in rating schools, as the No Child Left Behind Act now requires. Quality Counts found that to comply with federal law, all jurisdictions rate schools based, in part, on the performance of special education students on state tests. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia incorporate the test scores of students who took alternate assessments in those ratings. Fewer than half the states--23 states and the District--rate schools based, in part, on the dropout rates of students with disabilities. Twenty-eight states and the District rate schools based, in part, on the graduation rates of special education students.

Now, as state after state rolls out initially low test scores for students with disabilities, some officials fear a rush to judgment.

“We’re very concerned about the unintended consequences of holding schools accountable for this population,” says Chester of the Ohio education department. “We’re sensitive to the potential for pushing these students out, for scapegoating these students, for identifying them as the reason that a school or a district isn’t measuring up.”

The biggest tension centers on whether those special education students who now function at least several years below grade level can be expected to do well on grade-level exams, as federal law demands.

“The idea has been brought up multiple times,” says Debra Dixon, a program manager for specialized services in the Louisiana education department. “How do we even write IEPs for these children? The teachers are frustrated because they know that these kids have to be in accountability systems, they know they have to show growth, but they’re afraid for the children who are functioning significantly below grade level.”

But as Thurlow of the University of Minnesota cautions: “I wouldn’t want to automatically say we know who those kids are, and let’s come up with something different for them. As soon as you do that, that group is going to get bigger and bigger.”

At the high school level, some also worry that the heavy focus on academics may divert attention from vocational and life skills that some students in special education need to succeed.

“We don’t want to say, ‘Gee, these kids don’t need English or math,’” says McLaughlin of the University of Maryland. “I’m just really concerned that for some kids, the level of cognitive complexity, the amount of material that all kids are expected to learn, is quite stunning.”

“It’s a really difficult thing to talk about,” she adds, “because as soon as you open the door to any other options, then anybody who can squeeze into special education will be there. That’s always been the problem.”

‘Something Quite Different’

But the most fundamental problem may be that many students in special education still lack sufficient access to the general education curriculum to demonstrate success.

“I think the biggest challenge is going to be for educators because, in many cases, the population that we will hold to grade-level standards has not been in mainstream curriculum, and often has not been in mainstream instructional programs,” says Chester.

Without such exposure, many of those students are unlikely to achieve grade-level performance in the short term, advocates for children with disabilities note. They view exposing that “instructional gap” as precisely the point of the federal law.

The good news is that a majority of special education teachers polled for Quality Counts say the curriculum for students with disabilities is more demanding and more similar to the curriculum for general education students than it was three years ago.

A majority also say that special education students are learning more academic content that is based on state academic standards for children their age than was true three years previously. But far fewer general education teachers feel that way, suggesting that such changes have yet to penetrate the regular classroom as deeply.

The SEELS study found that about 55 percent of elementary students with disabilities got their primary language arts instruction in general education classes, and about 62 percent of them had a goal of reading at grade level. About half used general education materials without any modifications at all. They spent about the same amount of time as other students practicing phonics, learning vocabulary, taking quizzes or tests, and working on projects or worksheets.

But, says Blackorby, the SEELS co-director and the program manager for the disability-policy program at SRI International in Menlo Park, Calif, “when you look at the classes of behaviors that require the kids to do something, you actually see something quite different.”

Compared with other students, elementary pupils with disabilities were less likely to read literature, plays, poetry, or informational material. They read either silently or aloud less often. They also were significantly less likely to complete a writing assignment, respond orally to questions, take part in class discussions, or make presentations to the whole class or group.

For special education students, individualized education plans must address access to and progress in the general education curriculum, as well as set annual, measurable goals for their performance.

But, as Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington points out, “IEPs have historically reflected a given student’s particular instructional regimen, rather than provided a road map for helping that child accomplish the general education goals promulgated by the school or state.”

Until 1997, the IDEA did not even require regular classroom teachers to participate in the development of students’ IEPs. A three-state study financed by the federal office of special education programs and published in 2000 found that most IEPs were not aligned with state academic-content standards; that special education teachers lacked guidance about how to align the documents with the standards; and that, by and large, special education teachers were “not involved in schoolwide discussions about standards” and “tended to use the IEPs rather than the standards as a guide for instruction.” (Of course, in many states, general instruction is not well-aligned with state content standards either.)

Stephanie Lee, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs, says states and districts have a lot of flexibility in how they design IEPs and what forms they use.

“I think what we’re learning, through our research on best practices, is that it’s important to consider the state standards in developing IEPS,” she adds, “but we don’t have any specific guidance that I know of about how a state has to do this.”

Quality Counts’ survey of the 50 states and the District of Columbia found that only seven states require that the IEPs of students with disabilities address state content standards. Alabama plans to require such alignment for the 2004-05 school year. Alaska requires that IEPs be aligned to the state’s academic-performance standards.

The teacher poll for the report revealed that more than eight in 10 teachers say their students’ IEPs are aligned with their states’ academic-content standards “very much” (40 percent) or “somewhat” (43 percent).

While 98 percent of special educators are included in the writing of those IEPs all or most of the time, however, such involvement is true for only 57 percent of general educators. In addition, 49 percent of special education teachers believe their schools should spend a “great deal of time” teaching special education students content aligned with the state standards for students their age, compared with 85 percent who say a “great deal of time” should be spent teaching content specifically outlined in those students’ IEPs.

‘Highly Qualified’ Teachers

How to prepare educators to teach children with disabilities to state standards is an open question, particularly given a nationwide shortage of special education teachers. In 2003, the American Association for Employment in Education identified special education as a top teacher-shortage area. (See story, Page 62.)

The No Child Left Behind Act requires all teachers in the core academic subjects to be “highly qualified” in each and every subject they teach. That requirement extends to special educators who are solely responsible for teaching a core academic subject, such as mathematics or reading. Yet, traditionally, states have not required those with special education licenses to demonstrate subject-matter knowledge.

Quality Counts found that 27 states and the District of Columbia require special educators to have a minimum degree or coursework in special education to earn their initial teaching licenses, and 29 states and the District require special educators to pass an exam related to special education. Fourteen states and the District require both in the 2003-04 school year. But no state currently requires special educators at the secondary school level to pass exams or complete coursework related to the core subjects they teach.

While 14 states and the District of Columbia require general education teachers to complete one or more courses related to special education to earn initial teaching licenses, only nine states require them to complete preservice training related to special education.

“As long as we have youngsters with special education teachers certified in noncontent-based areas, there’s no surprise why these youngsters aren’t learning the algebra, or geometry, or trigonometry, or whatever they need to know in order to meet the same standards as other kids,” argues Kathleen B. Boundy, a co-director of the Center for Law and Education, a Washington-based organization that advocates on behalf of students with disabilities and their parents.

Deborah A. Ziegler, the assistant director for public policy at the Council for Exceptional Children, a leading group that represents special educators, says students in self-contained classrooms who are eligible to take courses such as algebra should have a special education teacher with competence in that subject and in special education.

But, in general, the Arlington, Va.-based council argues, special education teachers should teach secondary-level content in consultation or collaboration with their general education colleagues, rather than be experts in such subjects themselves. The federal mandate regarding highly qualified teachers is especially a problem for some rural areas that may have one special educator for the whole high school, Ziegler says.

Quality Counts’ poll found that 70 percent of special education teachers in grades 6-12 teach more than one subject, compared with 13 percent of general education teachers in those grades.

Special education teachers polled for the report generally feel prepared to teach their special education students.

Fifty-seven percent of special education teachers say they are “very” familiar with their states’ academic content for the subjects they teach, compared with 70 percent of general education teachers. But while 95 percent of special educators say they feel “very” prepared to teach students with IEPs, that is true for only 45 percent of general educators.

Eighty percent of teachers believe it’s “very important” for special educators to demonstrate competency in all the academic subjects they teach. Three-quarters say it is “very important” that general education teachers demonstrate “competency in teaching students in special education.”

“I think we’re going to have to revisit the role of special and regular educators,” says Ohio’s Chester. “In cases where special educators have the primary responsibility for reading and math instruction, that may not be the wisest decision.”

Exit Tests

Perhaps the most explosive issue on the table is whether students with disabilities should have to pass high school “exit tests” or end-of-course exams to earn standard diplomas. (See story, Page 53.)

Although federal law does not require such high-stakes testing for individual students, 20 states require students to pass an exam to earn a diploma. Fourteen of those require students with disabilities to pass the exams.

Lawsuits challenging such rules for students with disabilities are pending in both California and Massachusetts. Plaintiffs argue that special education students either lacked adequate accommodations to pass the tests or enough academic preparation in their classes to master the level of content on the exams, as evidenced by their high failure rates.

“Who is really getting punished here?” asks Boundy of the Center for Law and Education, which represents students in the Massachusetts case. “This really is coming down on the backs of the youngsters.”

The issue has often found special education advocates and parents on both sides of the fence, torn between wanting schools to retain high expectations for the students and fears that the children will suffer harsh consequences as a result.

Of the 14 states that now require special education students to pass a test to earn a diploma, the National Center on Educational Outcomes found that five allow students with IEPs to take an alternate assessment. Three states have an appeals process for those who fail the exam.

Seven states have no other options for students with disabilities to earn a standard diploma if they fail the tests. Other states award special education students who fail the tests alternative or nonstandard diplomas, but there’s little research on how colleges or employers view such documents.

Critics worry that the diploma demands will boost the already high dropout rates for special education students and provide incentives to remove them from regular education settings, where such youngsters’ poor showings could make schools look bad.

But Boundy, whose group opposes high-stakes testing for any student, argues that the solution isn’t to exempt students with disabilities from diploma requirements where they do exist. That smacks of discrimination, she says, and could lead to even weaker standards and a more watered-down curriculum for such students.

While 39 states and the District of Columbia regulate the requirements for a standard diploma, such as credits earned and attendance, 24 states allow students with disabilities to graduate with a standard diploma even if they haven’t met the graduation requirements.

To some, the ultimate solution may be to focus more on progress, or on the year-to-year gains of individual students, than on getting special education students over an absolute bar.

“I don’t want to see a lower achievement goal set for these kids,” McLaughlin of the University of Maryland says, “but I do think that for students with disabilities, we need to consider both the level as well as the slope of their progress. Yes, we want to know what the gap is between this subgroup and other subgroups, but we need a more sensitive measure.”

“Before we lower the boom on schools, we should be able to look deeper,” she adds, “because we’ve got a hell of a long way to go.”

Otherwise, McLaughlin worries, “what we’ll see is exactly what we’re starting to see: people out there in the field starting to push back on this. And the way they’re pushing back is to say, ‘We’ll never do it with these kids, so let’s exempt them.’”

In March 2024, Education Week announced the end of the Quality Counts report after 25 years of serving as a comprehensive K-12 education scorecard. In response to new challenges and a shifting landscape, we are refocusing our efforts on research and analysis to better serve the K-12 community. For more information, please go here for the full context or learn more about the EdWeek Research Center.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week


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