States and school districts appear to be making good progress toward including students with disabilities in statewide assessments and reporting accountability statistics for such students, but they still need to work on reducing dropout rates and preparing general education teachers to work with students with special needs, a federally sponsored study says.
Known as the Study of State and Local Implementation and Impact of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the 6- year research project was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s office of special education programs and conducted by the Bethesda, Md., office of Abt Associates, a policy-research firm.
The final report is under review by the Education Department. The firm released a preview of the findings, however, during a March 3 presentation in Washington.
The researchers examined nine areas as mandated by Congress in the 1997 reauthorization of the IDEA, the federal law that governs the education of 6.8 million children with disabilities. Among the issues examined were: progress among the states in establishing accountability systems, the placement of special education students in the least restrictive environment, as the federal law requires, and the dropout rates for such students.
The study included four surveys of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as three surveys of a national sample of districts and schools.
The study was useful for the Education Department as a measurement tool, said Louis Danielson, the director of the research-to-practice division of the special education programs office. “What it’s really providing is a gauge for us to make some judgments on whether or not we’re making progress,” he said.
One of the major themes uncovered is that states appear to be making progress in aligning their academic standards for students with and without disabilities. The vast majority reported that they had the same content standards for students with and without an individualized education program under the IDEA in the four core subjects of mathematics, English, science, and social studies.
Most states are also providing resources to schools and districts to improve the participation and performance of students with disabilities on state tests. The mandates and sanctions under the federal No Child Left Behind Act appeared to be a driving force in moving states toward improving their accountability, said Ellen Schiller, the study project director at Abt Associates.
Where states and districts appeared to lag was in the capacity of general education teachers to teach students with disabilities. For instance, a national survey of principals in the 2004-05 school year showed that 74 percent believed their special education teachers were prepared to help students gain access to the general education curriculum, but only 41 percent of principals thought their general education teachers were prepared.
Beverly McCoun, the director of student services for the 2,200-student Mount Horeb school district outside Madison, Wis., helped provide technical assistance to the researchers. She said she was not surprised that the findings seemed to show that mandates were generally being followed.
“Compliance issues that we can do from the office are not nearly as hard as changing people’s perceptions,” Ms. McCoun said. And, she said, a perception still exists among many general education teachers that they don’t have enough knowledge to work with students in special education.
Margaret J. McLaughlin, another member of the technical-assistance group, said the Abt study, like others, shows that standards-based improvement efforts have made a big impact on the education of students with disabilities. Even though the IDEA has long required certain actions by the states, the 4-year-old No Child Left Behind law prompted new attention to the issue, she said. Districts are now evaluated on how well subgroups of students, including students with disabilities, perform on standardized tests.
“It says something to me that it wasn’t until these kids mattered to general education that states stood up and took notice,” said Ms. McLaughlin, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland College Park.
A version of this article appeared in the March 15, 2006 edition of Education Week as Study: States Including Special Education Students in Tests