It has been more than 40 years since President Gerald Ford signed into law mandatory provisions for handicapped children to receive an appropriate public education.
The basic requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act remain, including an emphasis on educating these children in the least restrictive environment alongside their non-handicapped peers.
However, this has not been working very well if you consider student achievement. In fact, the data suggest students with disabilities are failing miserably.
Students with disabilities represent a significant number of school-age students in New York State. In fact, the 2014-15 state report “Promoting Inclusion of Students with Disabilities” noted that the number of students identified with one of the 13 disability categories was approaching 421,000 students. This represents about 1 in 7 students.
The majority of students are classified with mild disabilities. Those categories include learning disabilities (36 percent), speech/language impairments (26 percent) and other health impairments (16 percent). The total of these mild categories represents 78 percent of all students with disabilities in New York. And with the overwhelming majority — close to 90 percent — of New York’s students with disabilities educated in general education classrooms for at least some part of their instructional day, their potential for learning is maximized.
So are these mildly disabled students, who are being educated in regular classrooms, learning what their non-handicapped peers are learning? The evidence says no. The most recent New York State report card confirms it.
In 2016, about 160,000 students with disabilities were given the English Language Arts (ELA) examination in third through eighth grades. The contrast, or gap, between students with disabilities and general education students was most alarming. Only 8 percent of students with disabilities were proficient in standards for their grade (scoring at Level 3 or 4, the top two levels). For Level 1 scores — well below proficient standards — the contrast was even more striking. Sixty-six percent of the students with disabilities tested at Level 1 while only 20 percent of the general education students scored in that bottom category.
The disparity for math was conspicuously close to that reported for ELA. Of students with disabilities, 11 percent of the test takers scored in either Level 3 or 4, versus 45 percent of general education students. The gap for Level 1 scores was also wide, as 65 percent of students with disabilities scored at that level, versus 23 percent of general education students.
Consequently, the possible relationship between students with disabilities achieving at low proficiency levels and their four-year graduation rate cannot be overlooked. The four-year graduation rate for students with disabilities in 2016 was a dismal 54 percent compared with 80 percent for all students.
Is there hope for improvement? That should be the goal. But rather than addressing the low achievement rates, the state Board of Regents recently decided to avoid this more important issue by choosing to make it easier for students with disabilities to graduate and receive exit diplomas. This is not the answer. A diploma by any name is meaningless unless it represents significant achievement.
Unless students with disabilities can meet the same achievement levels as their non-handicapped peers, they will have little chance, if any, of pursuing higher education opportunities and will be blocked from pursuing meaningful and sound career paths. Success of special education students should not be measured broadly by the diploma received but rather specifically by what students achieved.
Philip S. Cicero is a retired superintendent of schools and is an adjunct professor of education at Adelphi University.