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Learning Disabilities: Mind the Gap

I hope that you've had a chance to check out my article exploring the decline in students identified as having specific learning disabilities. It's particularly important to examine trends with the students in this category, because they made up about 40 percent of all the students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as of the 2007-08 school year, the most recent year for which data is available. (Information on the 2008-09 school year is coming in the next few weeks.)

(Interestingly enough, for all the attention that the disability has received, autism is still a tiny percentage of the students served under the IDEA, at 4.5 percent as of the 2007-08 school year. But the category is growing quickly.)

For years, educators and experts considered it a given that the number of students with disabilities would rise, so I found it interesting that the conventional wisdom seems to be out of date. But the identification rate is only part of the story, of course. The outcome that everyone wants are well-educated students, not merely a drop in identification rates.

In the article, I referred to Patterns in the Identification of and Outcomes for Children and Youth With Disabilities, one of several reports on special education that will be released by the Education Department's Institute of Educational Sciences.

The report offers some positive data, based on student scores on the "Nation's Report Card," the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Unlike state tests, the NAEP doesn't vary from state to state, so it's easier to make comparisons. It's important to note that there's still a large gap between students covered under the IDEA and students who are in general education, but the scores of both groups appear to be going up. From the report, and please note that I did some editing for ease of reading:

Academic achievement trends from 2003 through 2007 measured by NAEP showed significant increases in average scale scores for both children identified and children not identified for services under IDEA in grade 4 reading and mathematics and in grade 8 mathematics...


In grade 4 reading, average scale scores for children identified for services under IDEA and children not identified for IDEA services increased by 5.8 and 3 scale points, respectively. Similar increases were observed in grade 4 mathematics of 6.1 and 5.0 scale points, respectively. In grade 8 mathematics, average scale scores for children identified for services under IDEA increased by 4.1 scale-score points from 2003 to 2007. Average scale scores for children not identified for IDEA services increased by 3.2 scale-score points.

So, that's good news, right?

But at the same time, there's a wide gap in the number of students with disabilities who are graduating with a regular diploma four years after they start high school. The same report notes that nationwide, 46 percent of children identified for services under IDEA and estimated to be enrolled in 2001 completed secondary school with a regular diploma in 2005. That graduation rate is 29 percentage points below the rate for children in the total population nationwide who received a regular diploma in 2005.

Here's my question, which I throw out to the class for discussion or thought: Will there always be a gap? If schools are doing a better job at teaching, and keeping students out of special education who have been mislabeled (a big if!) then one might presume that you'd be left with a group of students who are harder to educate, and therefore it would make sense that their test scores or graduation rates might be lower than those of other students. I'm not suggesting that we then stop educating those students. And I don't think anyone would say we're at a point now where such a "permanent gap" is tolerable between students covered by IDEA, and students who are not. But is there a point in the future where a gap would be acceptable?

I'd love to hear some experts—parents, teachers, students with disabilities, other interested parties—weigh in on this.

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