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Journal Issue: Children with Disabilities Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2012

Disability and the Education System
Laudan Aron Pamela Loprest

Special Education and Outcomes

IDEA and Section 504 are widely credited with improving access to education for young people with disabilities and establishing an infrastructure for educating them, as shown in figure 1. The next important question is the extent to which special education has been successful in meeting the educational needs of students with disabilities and improving their educational achievement.

To answer this question, one must first ask whether special education programs are serving the right students, and whether these students are being identified in a timely manner and given the most appropriate and effective services. As suggested by the overrepresentation of African Americans, some children may be inappropriately placed in special education, while others may go unidentified or not receive the services they require. Clearly, many needy students who eventually receive special education did not receive the early intervention services to which they were entitled.

Accurate measures of outcomes for special education students are also needed, including appropriate measures of academic achievement, attendance, grade promotion, and engagement in school activities. Assessing these outcomes is challenging because of the heterogeneity of the students' capacities and school experiences and a paucity of data on in-school outcomes for these students. The lack of good data even on the interventions and inputs—the types and amounts of services special education children receive—further compromises the ability to measure the effectiveness of interventions. In addition, there is no agreement on whether the right measure of academic achievement should be appropriate standardized testing or some alternative assessment. Even the benchmarks for outcomes are not clearly agreed upon and may vary across students with disabilities. IDEA's requirement that each student have an individualized education program and goals reflects this difficulty in measuring progress.

Perhaps an even greater challenge to assessing student outcomes lies in separating the effects attributable to specific educational practices from other intervening and coexisting factors such as socioeconomic circumstances and need for supportive services. For this and other reasons, relatively little research has been conducted on the effectiveness of specific special education practices or programs. Of course, these difficulties mirror similar problems in measuring and improving outcomes for general education. In addition, the impact of special education for most students with disabilities is intertwined with their general education experiences and opportunities, including whether they have access to the full range of general education options. Finally, studies have found that the limited expectations of teachers and parents for many students with disabilities can lessen the effectiveness of an educational program.36

That said, we report on a set of measures that are available on educational and postsecondary outcomes for students in special education. These measures clearly suggest that there is room for improvement. We look specifically at assessments of educational progress, school completion rates, postsecondary outcomes, and the transition to adulthood.

Educational Assessments
One measure of the academic progress of students in special education is performance on standardized achievement tests. Since passage of No Child Left Behind, students with disabilities must be included in state testing and assessed against the same standard of proficiency as other students to determine whether schools are making the required "adequate yearly progress" toward goals for academic proficiency.37 The intention is to hold schools accountable for the performance and progress of all students, including those with disabilities. Results indicate continuing problems. For example, in 2003–04, among schools nationwide with subgroups of students with disabilities large enough to be counted separately, students in 36 percent of them did not make the required progress.38

Debate continues on the appropriateness of using the same tests and standards for assessing students with and without disabilities and on the use of accommodations in test taking. Some argue that many students with disabilities have inherent learning difficulties and start with lower test scores and so should be held to different standards while still maintaining progress toward goals.39 In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of Education began to allow states to make testing accommodations for students with disabilities who need them, and in the early 2000s states were allowed to use alternative assessments and modified standards for a small percentage of students with disabilities, particularly those with cognitive disabilities.40 However, states report continuing challenges in developing and validating alternate assessments (such as portfolios of work), including costs related to development. This area would be a useful place for federal assistance and coordination.

Because of differences in the way states identify the students who take assessment tests, the tests and standards that are used, and the testing accommodations they may provide, clear comparisons and interpretations of the results of state assessments are difficult to make. Comparing results over time, even for the same state, is complicated by changes in the composition of special education students and in policies, such as test accommodations, that can directly influence who participates in standard assessments as well as the results.

Given these caveats, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) standardized test, which is conducted in the same way in all states and which changes only slowly over time, provide useful information on the achievement and progress of students with disabilities.

These results suggest some progress but also point to substantial gaps between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers. Academic achievement trends from 2003 through 2007 measured by the NAEP showed significant increases in average reading and math scores for children in fourth grade who received IDEA services. But in each of these years, students in special education had significantly lower scores than other students.41 In the 2009 reading assessment for twelfth graders, 64 percent of students with disabilities but 24 percent of other students tested below basic proficiency; in math 76 percent of students with disabilities and 34 percent of other students fell below basic proficiency.42 Other grade-level assessments show similar gaps. Several reasons account for the lower scores among students with disabilities. The factors cited by one study were type of disability, cognitive ability, race, income, parental expectations, school absenteeism, and disciplinary problems. Grades, school mobility, and repeating a grade level were not significantly related to test scores.43

Graduation Rates
Another important educational outcome is the rate at which students with disabilities either graduate from or drop out of high school. Measurement of graduation rates can be complicated. Results from national studies that track secondary school students with disabilities found that 70 percent of the teenagers with disabilities who were out of school in 2003 had received a regular graduation diploma or certificate of completion, up from 54 percent in 198744 and not far below the 74 percent graduation rate for all public school students in 2002–03.45 However, far fewer special education students receive regular diplomas than do those in general education. In 2005, 46 percent of youth receiving IDEA services graduated with a regular diploma, compared with 75 percent for all students.46 High school completion rates also differ substantially across disability type. For example, students with sensory disabilities have much higher graduation rates than students with emotional disturbance.

Evidence is limited on how best to improve graduation rates for students with disabilities. One recent study in Chicago found that ninth grade course performance is a strong predictor of graduation rates for these students. This study also found that high absence rates are an important factor explaining why students with disabilities have poorer course performance than students without identified disabilities.47

Postsecondary Outcomes and the Transition to Adulthood
Many studies have found that students with disabilities have poorer outcomes in the years after high school than their peers without disabilities, including lower rates of postsecondary schooling and employment, greater involvement with the criminal justice system, and lower likelihood of living independently.48 Other dimensions to consider for these students (but less often measured) are quality of life, satisfaction, and social and civic engagement. Relatively little is known about the relationship of the school program to these life outcomes for those with disabilities.

Recognizing the difficulties some youth face as they transition to adulthood from schooling, IDEA requires that transition planning be provided to all special education students starting no later than age sixteen. One obvious problem is that students who drop out of school at age sixteen may never receive these services. Transition services may include coordination of services (such as vocational training, case management, and benefit counseling) in and outside of schools, assessments of students' interests and aptitudes, help with gathering information on and choosing among relevant opportunities, and planning for necessary supports including assistive technology. The 2004 amendments to IDEA require that transition planning be based on students' "strengths," not just their preferences and interests, and that the process be "results-oriented." In 2001 almost 90 percent of special education high school students were receiving transition planning, with two-thirds of parents satisfied with these services.49 Nonetheless, the extent to which current planning services are improving outcomes for students with disabilities has not been clearly demonstrated, although research has shown the potential for positive impact.50

Given the importance of higher education for future economic well-being, one area of concern for students with disabilities is their relatively low participation in postsecondary schooling. One study found that in 2005, 46 percent of students with disabilities were enrolled in postsecondary education within four years of leaving high school, mostly in community colleges or vocational, technical, or business schools.51 This rate represents a good deal of progress since 1990 when only 27 percent of these youth were enrolled in postsecondary education. But it is still substantially below the enrollment rate of 63 percent in the general population. Other studies find that adults with disabilities have significantly lower levels of postsecondary school completion than those without disabilities, even among the subgroup who had a disability during their school years.52

Another concern is whether youth are being appropriately prepared for employment, given the low rate of employment among adults with disabilities. Employment rates among youth with disabilities just out of high school were similar to those of other youth without disabilities in 2005—roughly 60 percent. However, employment rates at this age reflect schooling choices as well as employment choices—unemployed youth attending school are of less concern than those who are neither working nor in school. In 2003, 30 percent of students with disabilities were not participating in schooling, employment, or job training in the years immediately after high school. This lack of engagement varied considerably by disability status. For example, more than half of students with mental retardation had not engaged in any of these activities compared with 17 percent of students with learning disabilities.53

Opportunities for vocational or career training opportunities and vocational assessments of interest and aptitude are part of students' transition planning that can improve employment outcomes. Coordinating job training, both while students are still in school and after they leave, with available workforce options from other public programs such as those funded through the Workforce Investment Act and Vocational Rehabilitation is also important. Even as the focus on transition planning in IDEA has been strengthened, many challenges remain in preparing and supporting special education students for the transition to adulthood. Enhancing the ability of secondary school students to advocate for their needs in various settings, improving access to supports and services after high school, and coordinating services across postsecondary education, health, mental health, and human services are all areas of intervention that need to be improved.54

Additional transition issues concern children with disabilities in the juvenile justice system, alternative education systems, and the foster care system. Special education children are disproportionately represented in all three systems, and their transition to adulthood is particularly complicated and difficult.55 Challenges to receiving appropriate educational services in these settings are compounded by the particular difficulties that lead children to be in these systems and the specific challenges these systems face. The need for coordination between the public education system and these other systems goes well beyond transition planning to extend throughout the educational experience.