Teachers agree in principle that students with disabilities should be taught to high standards, but their opinions stand in stark contrast to the more concrete policies embedded in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as revised in 1997, according to an Education Week poll. Although both federal laws advocate educating all students, including those with disabilities, to the same academic-content standards, and including all students in a single system of testing and accountability, teachers believe that the best way to educate children with disabilities is to individualize their instruction and assessment.
About eight in 10 teachers say their schools’ academic expectations for students in special education are “about right.” Fifty-six percent say their schools’ expectations for those students are the same as the academic expectations for other students. Almost 60 percent of the teachers “somewhat” or “strongly” disagree that many of their students with individualized education plans, or IEPs, are unable to learn the material they are supposed to teach them.
Teachers do an about-face, though, when pressed on more specific issues related to the policy tenets in federal law. A majority of teachers—57 percent—believe that schools should focus a “great deal” of time on teaching students with IEPs academic content aligned with state standards for children their age. But even more teachers—82 percent—believe that schools should spend a great deal of time teaching those students the academic content outlined in their IEPs.
A striking 84 percent of teachers reject the concept that special education students should be expected to meet the same set of content standards as general education students their age. Instead, they say, such students should be expected to meet an alternative set.
When asked more pointedly about their expectations for students, 72 percent of teachers who teach general education students say that “all” or “most” of those children are able to meet their states’ content standards. But only 26 percent of teachers who teach special education students say that those youngsters are able to do the same.
Such strong sentiments carryover to teachers’ feelings about testing. Almost eight in 10 teachers say that special education students should be excused from taking the same state tests as other students their age, even if allowed appropriate accommodations. Rather, the teachers say, the children should be assessed using alternative methods. The same proportion of teachers agree that requiring special education students to meet state standards for academic content and take statewide tests will detract from tailoring those students’ instruction and hinder their education.
And while 60 percent of teachers with general education students say that all or most of those children would be able to score at the “proficient” level on state tests for students their age, only 19 percent of teachers with special education students say that all or most of those children would be able to do the same, even with accommodations.
Teachers also oppose the use of tests for special education students for accountability purposes. Eighty-five percent of teachers “somewhat” or “strongly” agree that including test results of students with IEPs in the accountability system will result in an inaccurate assessment of the job that schools and teachers are doing.
They also worry about holding the students accountable for their performance on state exams: Eighty-six percent agree that it is unfair to evaluate special education students on how well they master their states’ content standards, as shown by their state test scores.
More than three-quarters of teachers say that requiring students with disabilities to take state tests will put too much pressure on those students and will be demoralizing.
Split on Preparedness
Despite general and special education teachers’ collective opposition to critical features of an integrated standards, testing, and accountability system, dramatic differences between the two groups surface around their reported feelings of preparedness.
Seventy-four percent of the general education teachers surveyed teach students with IEPs. But only 45 percent of general education teachers—compared with 95 percent of special education teachers—report that they feel “very prepared” to teach the students with IEPs who are assigned to them.
Special education teachers also report feeling more prepared than their general education counterparts to teach students with IEPs according to their states’ content standards and to interpret results from state exams to inform instruction for those students.
While 88 percent of special education teachers say they are included “all of the time” in the development of their students’ IEPs, only 34 percent of general education teachers with special education students report being involved as often.
Special educators also are more likely than general education teachers to report improvements in the curriculum for students with IEPs. Fifty-one percent of special education teachers say the curriculum for special education students is more demanding than it was three years ago; only 36 percent of general education teachers say the same.
More than half of special educators, 55 percent, say that students in special education are learning more content based on state academic standards for students their age, while general education teachers are more apt to say little change has taken place in the past three years.
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2004 edition of Education Week