Skip to main content

The Experience of Students with Disabilities: C-SAIL’s First-Wave Survey Findings

Lynn Fuchs, Doug Fuchs
Thursday, February 15, 2018
College- and Career-Readiness
Standards Implementation
Students with Disabilities

 The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all students with disabilities (SWD) receive a free, appropriate public education designed to meet their unique needs to prepare them for post-school education and employment. In the past 20 years, momentum has grown for a supplementary idea: that schools be held accountable for SWD achieving grade-level standards.

In 1997, the National Research Council published a consensus report, Educating One and All: Students with Disabilities and Standards-Based Reform, that discussed the tension between two accountability frameworks that apply to SWD. On one hand, the standards-based reform framework stresses accountability for outcomes and applies uniform standards to all students. On the other hand, the traditional legal framework under which SWD have been educated emphasizes the individualization of goals and instruction. The Committee proposed that policymakers work toward integrating the two frameworks.

Shortly thereafter, the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA required states to include SWD in high-stakes testing and to include those data in overall estimates of achievement. In 2001, No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) ramped up the stakes by banning out-of-grade-level testing, requiring that states report test results for at least 95% of SWD, and penalizing schools with automatic failure on NCLB’s Annual Yearly Program criterion if SWD participation fell below 95%. Most recently, however, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) introduced policy changes likely to relax the standards-based reform context for SWD. While ESSA dictates that IEPs must be aligned to State academic content standards at the student’s grade level, it permits States to decide what constitutes “significant progress” in closing statewide proficiency rate gaps, and it permits proficiency rate expectations to differ.

In short, two decades following the publication of the 1997 National Research Council report, tension persists between standards-based reform’s one-size-fits-all approach and IDEA’s individual goals requirement. To further complicate the picture for SWD, over these 20 years, the challenge of state standards has increased substantially. Throughout the upgrading of standards, a constant is a propensity for instructional recommendations for SWD to be rooted in inclusion. This challenges general educators to provide an instructional context that supports SWD to achieve state standards.

For these reasons, IES’s Center on Standards, Alignment, Instruction, and Learning (C-SAIL) has adopted a major focus on teachers’ perceptions and implementation of College- and Career-Ready (CCR) standards for SWD. Below we share key findings from C-SAIL’s first-wave survey of district administrators, principals, general educators, and special educators in Texas and Ohio. We asked participants to think about SWD who participate in their regular state accountability system, not students in the alternate assessment when answering questions on the survey. 

  1. Findings raise questions about whether schools are providing SWD the opportunity to meet new, challenging CCR standards. In Texas, teachers of SWD reported addressing less standards-emphasized content than did elementary and secondary ELA teachers and less standards-emphasized content than did secondary math teachers. The same difference occurred in Ohio at the elementary level. The magnitude of effects for some of these differences was large. When viewed positively, this may reflect special educators’ differential attention to the foundational skills necessary for SWD to gain access to CCR standards. Yet, if SWD are to achieve challenging standards, they also require the instructional expertise of special educators to explicitly connect that foundational content to the complex topics and cognitive demands inherent in the standards.
  2. Math general educators offer the fewest supports to SWD. When asked to identify how many instructional supports they relied on to address the needs of SWD, general education math teachers in Texas and Ohio offered fewer supports than did special educators. Therefore, while special educators are addressing less standards-emphasized content and cognitive demands than general educators, math general educators are offering even fewer supports to SWD.
  3. Texas and Ohio general educators reported spending less than 75% of their instructional time teaching grade-level standards to SWD. Although this percentage is similar to general educator responses for students without disabilities, we might assume that SWD require more time to achieve ELA and math standards than other learners in these classrooms. Because many SWD receive at least 80% of their instruction in general education classrooms, these findings raise serious concerns.
  4. General educators and teachers of SWD infrequently coordinate instruction. We asked how often teachers plan lessons jointly, co-teach, consult, or monitor individual student progress. None of the differences among teacher types was significant, within or across states, suggesting a similar level of coordination across subject areas and a shared perception about coordination among types of teachers. With all averages representing the “sometimes” response option, however, coordination between general education and teachers of SWD appears to occur on an inconsistent basis.
  5. Teachers perceive inadequate preparation to teach CCR standards to SWD. In terms of general educator reports about their level of preparation, most respondents across the states indicated a moderate level of preparedness for teaching the CCR standards to SWD. They don’t, however, believe the amount of standards-related professional development they receive is adequate, and they don’t feel the professional development they receive is particularly helpful for addressing the needs of SWD.
  6. General educators view CCR standards as inappropriate for SWD. Perhaps of greatest concern, Texas and Ohio general educators in both content areas viewed CCR standards as inappropriate for SWD. Corroborating this view, teachers of SWD estimated only 50% of SWD would meet grade-level standards by the end of the academic year.
  7. Principals are more likely to view CCR standards as appropriate for SWD. In considering strategies for improving teacher preparedness for addressing the needs of SWD in achieving CCR standards and improving the outlook for SWD achieving those standards, it’s instructive to contrast the views of other important administrative players to the views of teachers about the appropriateness of standards. These administrators control decisions about how additional resources for supporting teachers in this effort might be allocated. While expressing ambivalence, with mean responses midway between “disagree somewhat” and “agree somewhat,” principals were more supportive than teachers on the appropriateness of CCR standards for SWD.

It, therefore, appears that classroom teachers, who have a clearer lens on the academic challenges and opportunities for SWD than do principals or district officials, hold doubts about CCR standards’ appropriateness for SWD. At the same time, special educators estimate a failure rate for half the population. Moreover, although principals view the instructional feedback they provide to teachers on addressing SWD as helpful, they still indicate the need for greater support.

In these ways, the C-SAIL first-wave present set of analyses raises serious questions about the degree to which school personnel believe in CCR standards for SWD and are meaningfully implementing these standards for SWD. The hope is that as educators adjust to CCR standards, they will identify successful strategies for meaningfully incorporating SWD in the reform.