Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for students with disabilities put educators in the troubling gap between two powerful laws, the 2004 Individuals With Disabilities Educational Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) and the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Title I, No Child Left Behind Act).
One law expects schools to consider the individual needs of the student with a disability and the other aims to hold special-ed students to the same standards as general education students.
In the latest issue of Exceptional Children, a University of Maryland researcher proposes one way to balance these 2 mandates when defining educational outcomes in IEPs: Instead of considering outcomes on a case-by-case basis, educators should be broader in their differentiation of students. Reflecting state assessment categories, students could be considered to fall into 3 major groups—those who can be held to regular standards, those who can meet modified standards and those who need alternate achievement standards, writes Margaret McLaughlin.
Other researchers have made a similar proposal for linguistic minority students, she says.
Under this proposal, English language learners could be divided into 4 groups based on their educational goals: (a) English language proficiency, (b) English language proficiency and academic proficiency, (c) biliteracy, and (d) biliteracy and academic proficiency. Each group has a defined set of educational outcomes based on the goal, and there are different needs and resource implications for students depending on the goal.
Evolving views of equity
The tension between the 2004 Individuals With Disabilities Educational Improvement Act (IDEA 2004) and the 2001 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Title I, No Child Left Behind Act) has its source in the different and evolving concepts of educational equity, writes the researcher.
Equity was once popularly viewed as essentially the same as equality. Schools had the obligation to remove barriers and provide the same access to all children in a given area, regardless of race and socioeconomic status. But gradually there grew to be an expectation that students should show meaningful “benefit” from their educational opportunities, although the issue of whether all children may benefit from or need the same curriculum has been a continuing debate.
The notion of equity increasingly has come to imply greater obligations than being evenhanded with resources or inputs, according to the author. Education gradually has assumed a responsibility for leveling the playing field with educational outcomes, too.
“The shift toward a focus on measuring the outcomes of education was driven by the belief that larger societal and cultural forces may have limited opportunities for students from certain backgrounds,” McLaughlin writes. “Thus, an African American student or a student living in poverty might not aspire to certain educational outcomes; therefore, it was the role of the state to promote the same outcomes.”
Under McLaughlin’s proposal, most students with disabilities would be expected to meet their grade-level standards. The IEPs for these students would be simplified to reflect only the accommodations, services and supports they need to be proficient on state standards.
The modified achievement standards would be based on grade-level content standards; however, the outcomes, benchmarks, and measures would be adjusted. The IEPs for these children would address the more intensive and specialized services and supports that they would need.
“These students should not be permanently assigned to some sort of ‘modified’ track, thus it is critical that progress measures be benchmarked to both the modified and regular achievement standards.”
The third and smallest group of students would be those identified as having significant cognitive disabilities. While alternate achievement standards must show a clear link to the content standards for the student’s grade, the content is less complex. The outcomes of students in this group are as significantly differentiated from general academic outcomes as the curriculum is.
Differentiating IEPs for 3 groups of students wouldn’t prevent full and equal access to gen-ed classrooms, it would simply establish the desired outcomes or benefits of education, the author says.
“The overall effect should be a more rational model of special education delivery that is more consistently applied across schools and districts,” McLaughlin writes.
She makes the more radical suggestion that once a student with an IEP meets the regular education achievement standard, perhaps that student should not continue to have claims on special education resources. Equity cuts both ways, she says.
“Just as it is inequitable to deny an individual student with an IEP access to the educational benefits as defined through state standards, it is also inequitable to provide resources to students beyond those required to achieve this ‘benefit.’”
Equity and IEP teams
Clearly, a high school diploma is an important outcome for students with disabilities if they are to gain employment and live independently. But the rigor of graduation requirements is also important, the author says. A National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) survey found that while 28 states had increased their graduation requirements, in all but 3 of the states, students with disabilities were allowed to obtain a standard diploma without completing all requirements.
On average, more than half (59%) of the courses that secondary students with disabilities took were academic. However, they were less likely to be enrolled in higher level math and science courses.
Students with disabilities face distinct equity issues because of the role that IEP teams play in their lives, according to the author. For example, requiring that all students with IEPs pass the same exam in algebra in order to receive a high school diploma may not be just if this proficiency is unnecessary for independent living. But who gets to decide? the author writes.
“Is it truly equitable to allow the IEP team to determine that a specific child will not be provided access to algebra because they believe it will not be important to that student’s future or because they believe the child will not be able to benefit?”
“Evolving Interpretations of Educational Equity and Students With Disabilities,” by Margaret McLaughlin, Exceptional Children, Volume 76, Number 3, pp. 265-278.