Achievement of students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms

Girlfriends going to schoolHigh school students with learning disabilities in inclusive classrooms performed no differently in reading and math than students with disabilities who attended special education classes, finds a recent study of 57 students published in Education and Treatment of Children.

“Despite the increase in students with disabilities placed in general education settings there is limited research, particularly at the secondary level, to suggest where students with SLD achieve more academically,” the researchers write.

Although students with specific learning disabilities (SLDs) are increasingly educated in general education classrooms, the authors say, the research on what impact this has on the academic achievement of students with disabilities has been mixed–some studies have found that they benefit from being in inclusive classrooms, other studies find little difference.

“A major concern is that some students with disabilities may not achieve at optimal levels in more inclusive settings because they require specialized instruction,” they write. “On the other hand, many students with disabilities in specialized settings may fall short of their academic potential because they lack access to the general curriculum, and, in many cases, a teacher with expertise in the content area they are studying.”

The students in the study were from two suburban high schools in the southeastern United States who met federal and state criteria for SLD. Forty-two of the participants were male and 15 female; 19 were in 9th grade, 18 in 10th grade, 13 in 11th grade and 7 in 12th grade. The ethnic backgrounds included 50 Caucasian, 5 African-American and 2 Hispanic-American students; 80% of students had reading disabilities and 20% had math disabilities.

The students completed the Grade Level Test Short Form of the Multilevel Academic Survey Test (MAST) that consists of two 20-item multiple choice maze tasks and 24 math computation items. The test is primarily intended for students who exhibit academic difficulties. Each of the students’ classes was characterized as inclusive or non-inclusive. Most inclusive classes had about 25 students with no more than 20% identified as having a disability. Some of the classes also had a special education teacher. Non-inclusive classes were taught by a special education teacher in a setting other than a general education classroom and had no general education students.

There were no statistically significant differences in performance on MAST Reading and Math subtests at all grade levels. Students who took literature classes in inclusive classrooms, however, did show improved performance.

Some researchers have questioned whether where students with disabilities should be educated is the wrong question, saying the emphasis instead should be on how best to meet the goals of their individualized plans.

“It is easy for IEP(Individualized Education Program) committees to lose sight and allow the tail to wag the dog by first determining an optimal percentage of time for general education placement without careful consideration of whether each situation is likely to allow the student to accomplish all the goals and objectives of the IEP,” the researchers write. “Likewise, if students are being placed in more restrictive settings, the committee should judiciously consider how each student will receive access to the general curriculum.”

“Academic Achievement and Class Placement in High School: Do Students with Learning Disabilities Achieve More in One Class Placement Than Another?” by Cecil Fore, Shanna Hagan-Burke, et. al. Education and Treatment of Children, Volume 31, Number 1, 2008, pp. 55-72.

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