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Special education: At a glance

Say “special education,” and many people think of brain-damaged students, or ones who use wheelchairs and respirators. But although students who receive special services are highly diverse, the vast majority are not acutely disabled. Most are diagnosed with disabilities that do not necessarily mean reduced mental ability.

Yet the achievement of students who receive special services lags far behind their non-disabled counterparts. With the number of these students is growing rapidly, it’s crucial to get a better perspective on who they are and what we can expect of them.

Who are special education students?

In 1976, just 5 percent of all students received special education services under IDEA. By 2006, that figure had almost doubled to 9 percent. But the growth has not been equal among disability types. The category of specific learning disabilities has grown enormously—more than 200 percent since 1976 (Horn and Tynan, 2001). Autism and ADHD, while comprising small percentages of the overall total, have also soared.

The vast majority of special education students have mild to moderate learning disabilities instead of severe handicaps. For example, more than 40 percent of all students who receive special services under IDEA are classified as having “specific learning disabilities.” In practical terms, this category includes any student with a discrepancy between his or her achievement and intellectual ability. Almost half of all students who receive special services spend more than 80 percent of their school day in general education classrooms (Cortiella, 2007)

The most severe disability categories are the least common. Autism accounts for around 4 percent of all students with disabilities. Traumatic brain injury accounts for less than one half of 1 percent. Experts estimate that only between 10 and 15 percent of all students who receive special education have severe handicaps. (Cortiella, 2007).

Experts have long been concerned that a disproportionate number of minority students are being identified as students with special needs (Education Week, 2004; National Research Council, 2002). While blacks make up 15 percent of the general school-age population (NCES 2007), they constitute more than 20 percent of all special education students. States and school districts have been taking steps to reduce the overidentification of minority students.

What can we expect of special education students?

Many in the special education community argue that the majority of special education students can be expected to perform just as well as their general education classmates, because most of IDEA’s categories do not indicate that the student has a mental handicap. Instead, they indicate that without special services, there is a gap between the student’s achievement and ability.

But even though the achievement gap between disabled and non-disabled students has narrowed over the past few years, it remains large.  According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 8th graders who had disabilities earned a scale score of 246 on the 2007 math exam. In contrast, students without disabilities posted a scale score of 284, a gap of more than 38 scale score points – almost four years’ worth of learning! (U.S. Department of Education, 2007a). State assessments show a similar gap.  Graduation rates, too, show the same problem.

The gap has narrowed recently. But there’s no clear consensus within the education community about what has caused this welcome change. Some have argued that the increased focus has raised instruction; others think that the greater number of students with milder disabilities might have raised overall scores.While research still needs to identify proven strategies, it is clear that states trying to improve special education students' performance have had success. School boards looking to do the same should start by asking the following questions:

1. What is the special education population in our district? How does it break down by disability? By racial/ethnic group? By family income?

2. How are our district’s special education students performing relative to other students? Has this performance changed over time?

3. What goals could we reasonably set for special education students, keeping in mind the group’s diversity?

4. How much of our special education dollars are federal? State? Local?

5. Do we have enough special education teachers? Do they meet the “highly qualified” definition? Do they have enough resources and support?


This piece is based on the full examination of special education prepared for the Center for Public Education by Ulrich Boser, a freelance writer and a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report. His work has appeared in SmithsonianSlate, and the Washington Post.

Posted: October 15, 2009

©2009 Center for Public Education

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