Which low-achievers are referred for special education?

iStock_000011758998XSmallWhy are some low-performing students referred for special education, while others are not? Some studies suggest that there are no significant educational differences between students found eligible for special education and low-achieving general-education students. Researchers Jay Gottlieb and Sharon Weinberg, New York University, sought to determine whether students found eligible for special education differ on academic, social and behavioral dimensions from students who remain in general education.

Gottlieb and Weinberg speculated that researchers’ inability to distinguish between special-education students and low-achieving general-education students might result from a failure to consider social behavior as a precipitating factor in the initial referral. Teacher referral is important because of the high probability — 88 percent — that once a child is referred, he will be found educationally disabled and eligible for special services.

In Gottlieb and Weinberg’s study, data was collected on 376 low-performing primary-age students from nine elementary schools in two urban school districts. Both districts had large minority populations, but whereas 88 percent of the children in one district were eligible for free lunch, the other district was much more diverse economically, and enrolled only half as many students in special education (7.2 percent compared to the first district’s 14 percent).

Guidelines established by both school districts required that students be referred when their academic performance was substantially — two or more years — below grade level. Misbehavior was not listed as a reason for referral unless it interfered with the student’s educational performance.

Identifying low achievers

At the beginning of the school year, K-3rd grade teachers in nine schools were asked to complete two questionnaires on their lowest-functioning students, one for academic performance and another for classroom behavior. The Academic Rating Scale included 57 items covering five academic areas: learning characteristics/classroom behavior, skill utilization, communication arts, socio-emotional development, and math concepts. The Conners Rating Scale, with 39 items, evaluated students’ behaviors.

Two clusters of behavioral characteristics were shown to be important — conduct disorders and attention deficit/hyperactivity. After teachers had filled out these questionnaires, the researchers made no further contact with the schools. Instead, they gave a list of student ID numbers to the the chairperson of the Committee on Special Education in each school district.

Whenever one of these students was referred for evaluation, the committee contacted the researchers, who immediately arranged to interview the teacher. In all, 10 percent of the original group of low-performing students were referred for special education during the school year.

Using a structured format, researchers interviewed each teacher about why she had referred the child. In addition, researchers asked teachers to explain why they had referred that particular student and not another low-performing student whom they had rated very similarly on the questionnaires at the beginning of the year. At the end of the year, they examined school records for all referred students and all matched but non-referred students. They also compared spring standardized reading scores and other behavioral information.

Significant differences between groups

Although teachers initially perceived children in these two groups of referred and non-referred students to be comparable, data collected at the time of referral points to significant differences between the groups. Variables related to behavior that differentiated these children included significantly more attention deficit, hyperactivity and general conduct disorders in the referred population. In addition, referred students’ folders showed high mobility and frequent lateness to school, considered to be evidence of difficult family circumstances. Standardized reading scores at the end of the year also supported referrals on academic grounds. Referred students scored significantly lower than non-referred students on the standardized reading test.*

Interviews with teachers were revealing. Teachers agreed that the matched referred and non-referred students had seemed relatively similar earlier in the year. Teacher’s reasons for referral fell into three categories: academic problems, behavioral problems, and lack of effort. Although there might be several children performing at a low level, teachers would refer a child who appeared to have given up and was not making any effort, but would not refer others who were motivated to learn.

Small number of teachers do most referrals

One of the most striking features about the referrals was that a small number of teachers were responsible for most of the referrals — one-eighth of the teachers referred two-thirds of the students. Although the district policy was to distribute students so that all classes were similarly heterogeneous, it can not be ruled out that some teachers had more low-performing students in their classes. When ratings of high- and low-referring teachers were compared, there were no statistically significant differences in how they rated their students.

Although district guidelines did not list misbehavior as a reason for referral, poor-performing students with a history of behavior problems sometimes were referred after a single highly visible act of misbehavior. While many low-performing students had long histories of behavior problems, a single episode that teachers described as “the last straw” led to referral for some of these students. Poor academic performance also led to referral and was substantiated by the end-of-the-year testing.

This data suggests that to some extent, the teacher to whom students were assigned could significantly affect their chances of referral. Since the vast majority of referrals receive placement, a minority of teachers were responsible for most special-education placements.

Comprehensive training needed in early interventions

Gottlieb and Weinberg suggest that there is a need for comprehensive training of teachers in a variety of early interventions to reduce the need for special-education referrals. Areas of training would include techniques for behavior management and increasing the variety of instructional strategies for beginning reading. The fact that a few teachers account for most of the referrals indicates that perhaps the training is necessary for only those teachers who habitually make multiple referrals. These researchers conclude that although referred students did differ from the non-referred students in this study, some of their problems could be more appropriately remediated in general-education classrooms if teachers had support from consultant teachers, reading specialists, social workers and crisis-intervention teachers.

*Editor’s Note: The possible influence of special-education placement on end-of-year standardized test scores was not measured. In order to take this into account, half of the referred students deemed eligible for special education would need to have been denied placement, and their scores compared to those of students who had been placed in special-education classes.

“Comparison of Students Referred and Not Referred for Special Education” The Elementary School Journal Volume 99, Number 3, January 1999 pp. 187-199.

Published in ERN March 1999 Volume 12 Number 3

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